Science

Honeybees' venom may treat aggressive forms of breast cancer


Venom from honeybees could be used to treat aggressive forms of breast cancer without damaging healthy cells, study suggests

  • Researchers studied the venom properties of over 300 European honeybees 
  • They were able to synthesise an anti-cancer component of honeybee venom
  • The compound melittin was able to kill off 100 per cent of cancer cells in an hour 

Compounds found inside honeybee venom can help to tackle aggressive forms of breast cancer without putting healthy cells at risk, a clinical study discovered.  

Experts from the University of Western Australia used venom from 312 bees found in Perth, Western Australia, Ireland and England as part of the research.

The team tested the effects of venom on different types of breast cancers that have limited treatment – they found it rapidly destroyed tumours and cancerous cells.  

Before this study nobody had compared the effects of honeybee venom or a component of the venom called melittin on cancerous and normal cell types. 

Researchers were able to extract melittin from the venom, recreate it and then use it to kill up to 100 per cent of cancer cells without having an effect on normal cells. 

Experts from the University of Western Australia used venom from 312 bees found in Perth, Western Australia, Ireland and England as part of the research

Experts from the University of Western Australia used venom from 312 bees found in Perth, Western Australia, Ireland and England as part of the research

The Australian team  found that the synthetic product mirrored the majority of the anti-cancer effects of honeybee venom.

It was able to ‘selectively and rapidly ‘reduced the viability of triple-negative breast cancer’ as well as other cancerous cells.

Lead researcher, Dr Ciara Duffy, said melittin in the right concentrations can be used to completely destroy cancer cell membranes within 60 minutes.

Melittin in honeybee venom also had another remarkable effect; within 20 minutes, it was able to substantially reduce the chemical messages of cancer cells that are essential to cancer cell growth and cell division.

‘We looked at how honeybee venom and melittin affect the cancer signalling pathways,’ said Duffy.

These pathways are the chemical messages that are fundamental for cancer cell growth and reproduction – finding pathways were quickly shut down with melittin.

‘Melittin modulated the signalling in breast cancer cells by suppressing the activation of the receptor that is commonly over expressed in triple-negative breast cancer,’ Duffy explained.

‘It suppressed the activation of HER2 which is over-expressed in HER2-enriched breast cancer,’ she said.

Western Australia’s Chief Scientist, Professor Peter Klinken, described the synthesis of melittin as ‘incredibly exciting’. 

‘It provides another wonderful example of where compounds in nature can be used to treat human diseases’, he 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 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 tumour growth in mice.’

As part of the study Duffy and colleagues had to put bees to sleep with carbon dioxide and kept them on ice until the venom barb could be pulled out.  

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.

Before this study nobody had compared the effects of honeybee venom or a component of the venom called melittin on cancerous and normal cell types

Before this study nobody had compared the effects of honeybee venom or a component of the venom called melittin on cancerous and normal cell types

‘I found that the European honeybee in Australia, Ireland and England produced almost identical effects in breast cancer compared to normal cells,’ she said.

However, bumblebee venom was unable to induce cell death even at very high concentrations.

One of the first reports of the effects of bee venom was published in Nature in 1950, where the venom reduced the growth of tumours in plants. 

However, Dr Duffy said it was only in the past two decades that interest grew substantially into the effects of honeybee venom on different cancers.

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

Breast cancer is one of the most common cancers in the world and affects more than two MILLION women a year

Breast cancer is one of the most common cancers in the world. Each year in the UK there are more than 55,000 new cases, and the disease claims the lives of 11,500 women. In the US, it strikes 266,000 each year and kills 40,000. But what causes it and how can it be treated?

What is breast cancer?

Breast cancer develops from a cancerous cell which develops in the lining of a duct or lobule in one of the breasts.

When the breast cancer has spread into surrounding breast tissue it is called an ‘invasive’ breast cancer. Some people are diagnosed with ‘carcinoma in situ’, where no cancer cells have grown beyond the duct or lobule.

Most cases develop in women over the age of 50 but younger women are sometimes affected. Breast cancer can develop in men though this is rare.

Staging means how big the cancer is and whether it has spread. Stage 1 is the earliest stage and stage 4 means the cancer has spread to another part of the body.

The cancerous cells are graded from low, which means a slow growth, to high, which is fast growing. High grade cancers are more likely to come back after they have first been treated.

What causes breast cancer?

A cancerous tumour starts from one abnormal cell. The exact reason why a cell becomes cancerous is unclear. It is thought that something damages or alters certain genes in the cell. This makes the cell abnormal and multiply ‘out of control’.

Although breast cancer can develop for no apparent reason, there are some risk factors that can increase the chance of developing breast cancer, such as genetics.

What are the symptoms of breast cancer?

The usual first symptom is a painless lump in the breast, although most breast lumps are not cancerous and are fluid filled cysts, which are benign. 

The first place that breast cancer usually spreads to is the lymph nodes in the armpit. If this occurs you will develop a swelling or lump in an armpit.

How is breast cancer diagnosed?

  • Initial assessment: A doctor examines the breasts and armpits. They may do tests such as a mammography, a special x-ray of the breast tissue which can indicate the possibility of tumours.
  • Biopsy: A biopsy is when a small sample of tissue is removed from a part of the body. The sample is then examined under the microscope to look for abnormal cells. The sample can confirm or rule out cancer.

If you are confirmed to have breast cancer, further tests may be needed to assess if it has spread. For example, blood tests, an ultrasound scan of the liver or a chest x-ray.

How is breast cancer treated?

Treatment options which may be considered include surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and hormone treatment. Often a combination of two or more of these treatments are used.

  • Surgery: Breast-conserving surgery or the removal of the affected breast depending on the size of the tumour.
  • Radiotherapy: A treatment which uses high energy beams of radiation focussed on cancerous tissue. This kills cancer cells, or stops cancer cells from multiplying. It is mainly used in addition to surgery.
  • Chemotherapy: A treatment of cancer by using anti-cancer drugs which kill cancer cells, or stop them from multiplying
  • Hormone treatments: Some types of breast cancer are affected by the ‘female’ hormone oestrogen, which can stimulate the cancer cells to divide and multiply. Treatments which reduce the level of these hormones, or prevent them from working, are commonly used in people with breast cancer.

How successful is treatment?

The outlook is best in those who are diagnosed when the cancer is still small, and has not spread. Surgical removal of a tumour in an early stage may then give a good chance of cure.

The routine mammography offered to women between the ages of 50 and 70 mean more breast cancers are being diagnosed and treated at an early stage.

For more information visit breastcancercare.org.uk or www.cancerhelp.org.uk



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