Nobody likes getting stung by a bee – hey, it hurts like crazy. If you’re unlucky, you may be allergic to bee stings and that’s nothing to joke about. But a new study may have you thinking twice about that bee sting.
First, though – bees are amazing little creatures. They pollinate about 75% of the vegetables, nuts, and fruits that are consumed in the U.S. alone. Around the world, bees pollinate 70% of the food crops grown.
And don’t forget honey. In addition to keeping us fed, the venom from the honeybees’ sting has been used to treat medical conditions including everything from arthritis to Parkinson’s disease. And now a recent study from Australia has found that a key ingredient in honeybee venom may effectively kill the most commonly occurring cancer in women worldwide.
Breast cancer. Every year, millions of women are diagnosed with new cases of breast cancer and it’s the second most common form of cancer overall. The two most aggressive forms of breast cancer – and the hardest to treat – are triple-negative breast cancer and HER2-enriched breast cancer. They have the poorest treatment outcomes because of their ability to develop resistance to existing treatments.
And for triple-negative breast cancer, there are no clinically effective targeted treatments. This groundbreaking study, however, which focused on melittin, the active ingredient in honeybee venom, may lead the way to new treatments against breast cancer.
The promising study was led by Dr. Ciara Duffy at Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research in Perth, Australia. Dr. Duffy along with fellow doctors and researchers harvested the venom from hundreds of bees in Western Australia. Interestingly, among the almost 20,000 species of bees, only European honeybees have the special cancer-killing compound. And the bees in Perth are especially strong and healthy.
What makes these bees’ venom special is the compound melittin. It’s the main component in honeybee venom and what causes a sting to hurt. The bees were sedated with carbon dioxide and then kept on ice so they could harvest the venom. Once extracted, the melittin was then injected directly into tumors.
The effects were astounding. Not only did the venom kill 100% the cancer cells – it did it quickly, without harming healthy cells.
“The venom was extremely potent,” Dr. Duffy said in a press release. “We found that melittin can completely destroy cancer cell membranes within 60 minutes.”
Why It Works
Melittin acts on cancer cells in three ways – and what effective ways they are. Here’s what it does:
- Kills breast cancer tumors
- Stops cell growth and division
- May improve the effectiveness of chemotherapy drugs
Melittin enters the surface of breast cancer tumor cells, creating holes or pores in the cell wall, causing it to die. Within 20 minutes, it interferes with the main cancer signaling pathways to stop the growth and reproduction of cancer cells. And an encouraging symbiotic effect with current cancer treatments was observed. The holes melittin creates in cancer’s cell walls allow chemotherapy drugs to more easily penetrate the cells making them more effective.
What It Could Mean
More research needs to be done, but there are promising possibilities for new treatments and combination therapies. Ideally, some melittin therapy could be engineered that could go in and kill breast cancer tumors directly. But if that can’t be achieved, it could become a combination therapy that boosts the power of current cancer-fighting medications. Because of the way melittin punches holes in the cancer cell’s membranes, it can give chemotherapy drugs like docetaxel an easier entry. This would theoretically make current treatment regimens more effective.
In addition to increasing efficacy, it could also allow doctors to reduce dosages of cancer drugs thereby reducing any side effects. Honeybee venom is relatively cheap and easy to produce, opening up avenues for low-cost cancer treatments. But even so, researchers found that a synthetically-produced form of melittin mirrored the effect of naturally-harvested melittin.
While this research is still in its beginning phases and human trials have yet to be conducted, it is very promising for future breast cancer therapies. It’s a promising and encouraging idea to keep in mind as we raise awareness this October for Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Here’s to our sisters, mothers, daughters, wives, and friends who are cancer survivors and battling the disease today – your fight is all of our fight. It’s encouraging to see these rays of hope occurring in medicine today. Here’s to a future with a full, sunny blue sky.