World Bee Day: Is Honeybee Venom The Answer To Killing Cancer Cells?

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World Bee Day: Is Honeybee Venom The Answer To Killing Cancer Cells?

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Research scientists at Australia’s Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research and the University of Western Australia have set the scientific world abuzz with scientifically backed findings that honeybee venom may provide a potential cure for breast cancer.

Dr Ciara Duffy, a lead researcher at the Harry Perkins Institute in Perth, Western Australia, made the findings public just a few weeks ago when they were published in the prestigious international journal NJP Nature Precision Oncology

Dr Duffy and her team tested the venoms of 312 honeybees from Australia, Ireland, and England to observe its effects on the clinical subtypes of breast cancer including the aggressive triple-negative breast cancer, which has only limited forms of treatment. 

Dr Ciara Duffy: photograph supplied by The Harry Perkins Institute, Perth, Western Australia.
Dr Ciara Duffy: photograph supplied by The Harry Perkins Institute, Perth, Western Australia

She and her colleagues found that the honeybee venom rapidly destroyed triple-negative breast cancer and HER2-enriched breast cancer cells, a type of breast cancer that utilises a human growth protein to accelerate cancer cell growth. 

The research aimed to investigate the anti-cancer properties of honeybee venom, and a component compound, melittin, on different types of breast cancer cells.

“We tested a very small, positively charged peptide in honeybee venom called melittin, which we could reproduce synthetically, and found that the synthetic product explained the majority of the anti-cancer effects of honeybee venom.”

“No-one had previously compared the effects of honeybee venom or melittin across all of the different subtypes of breast cancer and normal cells,” she said.

“We tested honeybee venom on normal breast cells, and cells from the clinical subtypes of breast cancer: hormone receptor-positive, HER2-enriched, and triple-negative breast cancer.

“We tested an exceedingly small, positively charged peptide in honeybee venom called melittin, which we could reproduce synthetically, and found that the synthetic product explained most 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.”

Dr Duffy said the honeybee venom was extremely potent and a specific concentration of venom could induce 100 per cent cancer cell death while having minimal effects on normal cells. 

“I began with collecting Perth honeybee venom because Perth bees are some of the healthiest in the world,” Dr Duffy said. 

While there are 20,000 species of bees, Dr Duffy wanted to compare the effects of Perth honeybee venom to other honeybee populations in Ireland and England, as well as to the venom of bumblebees.

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

cancer cells
“Bumblebee venom was unable to induce cell death even at very high concentrations”

The melittin in honeybee venom, however, proved deadly to cancer cells. “We found that melittin can completely destroy cancer cell membranes within 60 minutes,” she says.

Melittin in honeybee venom was also found to have another remarkable effect – within 20 minutes it was able to substantially reduce the chemical messages of cancer cells essential to cancer cell growth and cell division. 

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

“This study provides another wonderful example of where compounds in nature can be used to treat human diseases.

“Melittin modulated the signalling 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 it was an incredibly exciting observation that melittin, a major component of honeybee venom, could suppress the growth of deadly breast cancer cells, particularly triple-negative breast cancer.

“Significantly, this study demonstrates how melittin interferes with signalling 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,” Professor Klinken said.

Dr Duffy also tested to see if melittin could be used with existing chemotherapy drugs as it forms pores, or holes, in breast cancer cell membranes, potentially enabling the entry of other treatments into the cancer cell to enhance cell death. 

“We found that melittin could 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 tumour growth in mice.” 

Honeybee venom kills cancer cells

Though exciting, this research is still in early, lab testing stages. The researchers will still need to perform clinical trials to assess the safety and efficacy of melittin for treating breast cancer in humans.

Fast Facts

  • Breast cancer is the most commonly occurring cancer in women worldwide
  • It is the second most common cause of death from cancer among females
  • Triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) accounts for 10-15% of all breast cancers
  • There are currently no clinically effective targeted treatments for TNBC
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