The natural world is full of compounds that can do us harm, but medical scientists continue to show us how they can leveraged for good, or even turned into lifesaving drugs.
A groundbreaking discovery made by scientists in Australia is the latest example of this, with the team demonstrating how an ingredient in honeybee venom can be used as an “extremely potent” weapon against breast cancer.
The research was conducted at Australia’s Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research, where scientist Ciara Duffy has spent the last few years investigating the therapeutic potential of honeybee venom.
We’ve previously seen how certain peptides and proteins in bee venom could be used to ferry drugs across the blood brain barrier and even build sensors for explosives, but Duffy’s research focuses on how it might be used to treat various breast cancers. Her work focuses on an active compound in honeybee venom called melittin, and how it can induce cell death in different clinical subtypes of breast cancer.
“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,” Duffy explains.
The team found that a certain concentration of honeybee venom could be used to induce death in 100 percent of the cancer cells, while leaving healthy cells largely unharmed. Melittin, meanwhile, was found to “completely destroy cancer cell membranes within 60 minutes,” according to Duffy.
“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,” she says. “The venom was extremely potent.”
The scientists made some interesting observations around how melittin works. Within 20 minutes, the team found, the compound acts to block some of the key signaling pathways used by the cancer cells to grow and reproduce.
This ability of melittin to shut down these key chemical messages by suppressing the activity of certain receptors was a key finding of the study, and one that has the team enthusiastic about where the research could lead.