Updated 14 September 2020

How honeybee venom can kill breast cancer cells

According to a study, bee venom is an underutilised resource that should be used in combination with existing cancer treatments.

  • Honeybee venom is very good at killing cancer cells, especially breast cancer cells
  • It contains a high dose of melittin which leaves normal cells alone while killing bad ones
  • According to a study, it's an underused resource that should be used in combination with existing cancer treatments

Not only do bees produce delicious honey, but they also have a powerful venom that can kill cancer cells.

While bee poison has been studied intensely for decades, a new study published in Nature's NPJ Precision Oncology aims to better understand this substance on a molecular level, which in turn, could provide insight into more effective treatments for fighting breast cancer.

READ | Sweat bees found in Taiwanese woman's eye, feeding off her tears 

European honeybee

This research focused on the venom from the European honeybee, collected in Perth, Australia, and introduced it to cell lines that represent breast cancer and other non-transformed cells. 

The key ingredient appears to be melittin, a basic peptide responsible for the pain felt when you get stung by a honeybee. It can induce cell death, and is highly selective of cancer cells specifically.

"Both honeybee venom and melittin have demonstrated antitumoral effects in melanoma, non-small-cell lung cancer, glioblastoma, leukaemia, ovarian, cervical, and pancreatic cancers, with higher cytotoxic potency in cancer cells compared to nontransformed cells," write the researchers.

"Honeybee venom and melittin induce potent and highly selective cell death in [triple-negative breast cancers] and HER2-enriched breast carcinoma with negligible effects in normal cells, by interfering with growth factor-dependent [receptor tyrosine kinase] interactions critical for receptor phosphorylation and activation of PI3K/Akt signalling."

READ MORE | Study says mammograms do save women's lives

Bioengineering and chemotherapy

Through bioengineering, scientists could make melittin even more focused against breast cancer cells. Even before modification, melittin proved highly effective at targeting aggressive types of breast cancer.

However, this effect needs to be researched greater depth before it can move forward to human trials.

Not only does it kill; one of their models showed that it could also improve a certain type of chemotherapy medication – docetaxel – used to suppress the growth of cancer cells.

"This highlights the potential of melittin for use in combination therapies to potentially increase the efficacy and/or reduce the dose of cytotoxic agents, enabling more cost-effective treatments with potentially fewer side effects to be delivered."

Other bee venoms

They also tested bumblebee venom, but it didn't have the same effect on breast cancer cells as honeybee venom because of lower levels of melittin.

"These data suggest that melittin present in honeybee venom is the most prominent bioactive anticancer compound within all the venoms studied."

They add that more research should be done comparing different types of bees, as there might be untapped potential in other species.

As a natural product, it's extremely cost-effective and could easily be reproduced in many communities struggling with the deadly disease.

READ | US breast cancer group issues treatment guidelines for coronavirus pandemic

Image credit: Pixabay


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