Honeybee venom induces cancer cell death in aggressive breast cancer

Bee venom contains several active molecules such as peptides and enzymes that have advantageous potential in treating inflammation and central nervous system diseases, such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Moreover, bee venom has shown promising benefits against different types of cancer as well as anti-viral activity, even against human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Now, a new study reveals that their venom is effective in killing breast cancer cells.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women worldwide, with nearly 1.7 million new cases diagnosed in 2012 alone, accounting for about 25 percent of all cancers in women. It is also the fifth most common cause of death from cancer in women, with about 522,000 deaths, or 6.4 percent to the total number.

Though conventional treatments for cancer works for breast cancer patients, some patients face the predicament of cancer relapse after treatment. Women who often go into a relapse may experience more aggressive and severe illness.

The new study, published in the journal Nature Precision Oncology, highlights how bees can help combat breast cancer. The research team found that when the venom’s main component, when mixed with existing chemotherapy drugs, reduced tumor growth in laboratory mice.

The researchers from the University of Western Australia revealed that bee venom is effective in killing aggressive breast cancer cells, particularly those sourced in Western Australia, England, and Ireland.

“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,” Ciara Duffy from the School of Human Sciences, The University of Western Australia, Perth, said in a statement.

Bee venom

To obtain the bee venom, the researchers put the bees to sleep with carbon dioxide and kept them on ice for extraction.

The active component of honeybee venom is melittin, a positively-charged, amphipathic 26-amino-acid peptide. It comprises about 40 to 60 percent of the dry weight and the principal pain-producing substance of honeybee venom.

In some forms of cancer, previous studies have shown that both honeybee venom and melittin exhibited antitumoral effects, including melanoma, glioblastoma, non-small-cell lung cancer, leukemia, cervical, ovarian, and pancreatic cancers. Moreover, melittin nanoparticles have been used to suppress liver metastasis through the immunomodulation of liver sinusoidal endothelial cells, the researchers explained.

The study

The team noted that the effects of several bee venoms and melittin across breast cancer subtypes have not bee studied. They focused on the aggressive triple-negative and HER2-enriched breast cancer subtypes.

The researchers reproduced the melittin synthetically and found that it paralleled the majority of the anti-cancer effects of the honeybee venom. They found that melittin can destroy cancer cell membranes within 60 minutes.

Further, upon investigating, the team has found that in just 20 minutes, the melittin had another powerful effect – it interfered with the main messaging or cancer-signaling pathways, which are essential for the growth and replication of cancer cells.

“Honeybee venom and melittin suppress the activation of EGFR and HER2 by interfering with the phosphorylation of these receptors in the plasma membrane of breast carcinoma cells,” the team concluded.

“Our work unveils a molecular mechanism underpinning the anti-cancer selectivity of melittin, and outlines treatment strategies to target aggressive breast cancers,” they added.

There are 20,000 species of bees, but the researchers wanted to compare the effects of Perth honeybee venom to other honeybee populations in England and Ireland. They also want to study the venom of bumblebees.

They found that the honeybees in Australia, Ireland, and England generated almost the same effects in breast cancer compared to normal cells. However, bumblebee venom was unable to trigger cell death even at very high concentrations.

Journal references:
  • Duffy, C., Sorolla, A., Wang, E., Golden, E, et al. (2020). Honeybee venom and melittin suppress growth factor receptor activation in HER2-enriched and triple-negative breast cancer. International Journal of Clinical Oncology. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41698-020-00129-0
  • Wehbe R, Frangieh J, Rima M, El Obeid D, Sabatier JM, Fajloun Z. Bee Venom: Overview of Main Compounds and Bioactivities for Therapeutic Interests. Molecules. 2019 Aug 19;24(16):2997. doi: 10.3390/molecules24162997. PMID: 31430861; PMCID: PMC6720840. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6720840/
Angela Betsaida B. Laguipo

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Angela Betsaida B. Laguipo

Angela is a nurse by profession and a writer by heart. She graduated with honors (Cum Laude) for her Bachelor of Nursing degree at the University of Baguio, Philippines. She is currently completing her Master's Degree where she specialized in Maternal and Child Nursing and worked as a clinical instructor and educator in the School of Nursing at the University of Baguio.


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