For the past few months, we’ve enjoyed warm weather and everything summer has to offer, including all it’s buzzing insects. As annoying they might be, one of them is essential to our well-being: the honeybee. These bees make a critical contribution to our agriculture and scientists have recently discovered another way that honeybees can help us. Honeybee venom has been found to kill aggressive forms of breast cancer without damaging healthy cells.
Using the venom from 312 bees in England, Ireland, Western Australia, and Perth, researchers from the University of Western Australia have discovered that venom from honeybees is a powerful anti-tumor agent, destroying an especially aggressive form of breast cancer cells within mice subjects at an amazing rate.This groundbreaking study was performed by scientists at the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research in Perth and just recently published in the NPJ Precision Oncology journal.
Lead researcher Dr. Ciara Duffy explained, “We found that the venom from honeybees is remarkably effective in killing some of these really aggressive breast cancer cells at concentrations that aren’t as damaging to normal cells.” When addressing the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Dr. Duffy shared her hope this discovery would hold promise for the 10%-15% of women who suffer from triple-negative breast cancer.
For these patients, their breast cancer lacks all three common cancer-drug receptors. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this includes the hormones estrogen and progesterone as well as the human epidermal growth factor, known as HER2. It’s typically these receptors that help doctor’s combat tumor development using targeted treatments, as opposed to full-body rounds of chemotherapy. The American Cancer Society reports that the five-year relative survival rate for the most progressive cases can be as little as 11% currently. However, this new study has revealed with a precise ratio of venom, 100% of triple-negative, as well as HER2-positive, breast cancer cells can be killed.
With nearly 2 million new cases of breast cancer alone in 2018, Dr. Duffy’s team isn’t suggesting a large-scale harvest of honeybee’s venom. Her team has been able to extract the compound melittin from honeybee venom and recreate it with the same anti-cancer effects. Dr. Duffy explains, “What melittin does is it actually enters the surface, or the plasma membrane, and forms holes or pores and it just causes the [cancer] cell to die.” This molecule may also aid the impact of chemotherapy drugs, by first puncturing the membrane, allowing the chemo better entry into the malignant mass.
However, Dr. Duffy is hesitant to call her study a breakthrough. She admitted to Australian Broadcasting Corporation there is still a lot of work to be done. “There’s a long way to go in terms of how we would deliver it in the body and, you know, looking at toxicities and maximum tolerated doses before it ever went further,” she said.
Regardless of Dr. Duffy’s reservations, this research is incredibly promising. For thousands of years, bee products have been used for cosmetic and medicinal purposes due to their anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-viral and antioxidant properties. Despite efforts to boost their populations, honeybee populations have long been under threat globally. Hopefully, this new research will inspire a renewed respect for honeybees and their importance.