Honeybee venom found to kill aggressive breast cancer cells

The venom is extremely potent.


Scientists at the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research in Perth, Australia, and the University of Western Australia, also in Perth, recently discovered an active honeybee venom component that induces cancer cell death.

Using the venom from 312 honeybees and bumblebees, scientists tested the venom’s effect on the clinical subtypes of breast cancer, including triple-negative breast cancer, which has limited treatment options.

They found that honeybee venom rapidly destroyed triple-negative breast cancer and HER2-enriched breast cancer cells, without harming normal cells.

The active component in honeybee venom- Melittin- is toxic to a wide range of tumors — including melanoma, lung, ovarian, and pancreatic cancers. Melittin is the molecule that creates the painful sensation of a bee’s sting.

For the first time, scientists have compared the effects of honeybee venom or melittin across all of the different subtypes of breast cancer and normal cells.

Dr. Ciara Duffy from the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research said, “the research was to investigate the anti-cancer properties of honeybee venom, and a component compound, melittin, on different types of breast cancer cells.”

“We tested honeybee venom on normal breast cells and cells from breast cancer’s clinical subtypes: hormone receptor-positive, HER2-enriched, and triple-negative breast cancer. We tested a minimal, positively charged peptide in honeybee venom called melittin, which we could reproduce synthetically. We found that the synthetic product mirrored the majority of the anti-cancer effects of honeybee venom.”

“We found both honeybee venom and melittin significantly, selectively and rapidly reduced the viability of triple-negative breast cancer and HER2-enriched breast cancer cells. The venom was extremely potent.”

“We found that melittin can destroy cancer cell membranes within 60 minutes.”

What’s more, scientists observed that Melittin also had another remarkable effect. It can substantially reduce the chemical messages of cancer cells within 20 minutes.

Dr. Duffy said, “We looked at how honeybee venom and melittin affect the cancer signaling pathways, the chemical messages that are fundamental for cancer cell growth and reproduction, and we found that very quickly these signaling pathways were shut down.”

“Melittin modulated the signaling in breast cancer cells by suppressing the activation of the receptor that is commonly overexpressed in triple-negative breast cancer, the epidermal growth factor receptor, and it suppressed the activation of HER2 which is over-expressed in HER2-enriched breast cancer.”

Western Australia’s Chief Scientist Professor Peter Klinken said, “This is an incredibly exciting observation that melittin, a major component of honeybee venom, can suppress the growth of deadly breast cancer cells, particularly triple-negative breast cancer.”

“Significantly, this study demonstrates how melittin interferes with signaling pathways within breast cancer cells to reduce cell replication. It provides another wonderful example of where compounds in nature can be used to treat human diseases.”

“We found that melittin can be used with small molecules or chemotherapies, such as docetaxel, to treat highly-aggressive types of breast cancer. The combination of melittin and docetaxel was extremely efficient in reducing tumor growth in mice.”

The study began with collecting Perth honeybee venom. Perth bees are some of the healthiest in the world. Scientists put the bees to sleep with carbon dioxide and kept on ice before the venom barb was pulled out from the bee’s abdomen and the venom extracted by careful dissection.

There were 20,000 species of bees. Scientists next compared the effects of Perth honeybee venom to other honeybee populations in Ireland and England and the venom of bumblebees.

Dr. Duffy said, “I found that the European honeybee in Australia, Ireland, and England produced almost identical breast cancer effects compared to normal cells. However, bumblebee venom was unable to induce cell death even at very high concentrations.”

In the future, studies will be required to formally assess the optimum method of delivery of melittin and toxicities and maximum tolerated doses.

Journal Reference:
  1. Duffy, C., Sorolla, A., Wang, E. et al. Honeybee venom and melittin suppress growth factor receptor activation in HER2-enriched and triple-negative breast cancer. npj Precis. Onc. 4, 24 (2020). DOI: 10.1038/s41698-020-00129-0
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