According to an Australian study, a compound found in the venom of bees and bumblebees has the ability to destroy aggressive cancer cells, including triple-negative breast cancer.
Bees are essential for pollinating flowers and wild crops and play an important role in our ecosystem. According to a new study, they could also be valuable allies in the fight against cancer.
In a study published in Nature Precision Oncology, researchers from the Harry Perkins Institute for Medical Research and the University of Western Australia (Australia) discovered the effect of these insects’ venom on cancer cells and especially on the triple-negative cells of breast cancer, i.e. without known markers on the surface of the cancer cells, which therefore respond poorly to targeted therapies.
According to Dr. Ciara Duffy, lead author of the work, this is the first study in more than 70 years to analyze the cancer-fighting properties of bee venom and one of its compounds, melittin. “No one had previously compared the effects of bee venom or melittin on all the different subtypes of breast cancer and normal cells,” says the researcher. We tested bee venom in normal breast cells and in cells of the clinical subtypes of breast cancer: breast cancer with hormone receptor, enriched with HER2 (a specific protein for an aggressive form of breast cancer), and triple-negative.
An interruption of the tumor signaling pathways
To analyze the cancer-fighting properties of bee venom, researchers collected venom from bees in Perth, Australia, as well as from other bee populations in Ireland and England and from bumblebees. A total of 312 species were analyzed. “I found that European bees in Australia, Ireland, and England had almost identical effects on breast cancer compared to normal cells. The bee venom was unable to induce cell death in normal cells even in very high concentrations,” says Assistant Professor Pilar Blancafort, who participated in the study.
However, the bee venom proved to be “extremely powerful”, as it caused 100% of cancer cells to die while having minimal effects on normal cells. “We discovered that melittin can completely destroy the membranes of cancer cells within 60 minutes,” said Dr. Duffy.
She and her team also discovered that Melittin can reduce the chemical messaging of cancer cells within 20 minutes. “We have seen how bee venom and melittin affect cancer signaling pathways, the chemical messages that are fundamental to the growth and proliferation of cancer cells, and we have found that these signaling pathways have been disrupted very rapidly.”
An addition to chemotherapy
The effect of this compound is particularly interesting in triple-negative breast cancer and HER2 cancer, two aggressive forms of breast cancer. “Melittin modulated signal transduction in breast cancer cells by suppressing the activation of the receptor normally overexpressed in triple-negative breast cancer, the epidermal growth factor receptor, and suppressed the activation of HER2, which is overexpressed in HER2-enriched breast cancer.”
For the research team, these initial results are all the more encouraging as Melittin can be used in addition to chemotherapeutic agents such as docetaxel to improve the destruction of cancer cells. In tests on mice, this combination has proven to be “extremely effective in reducing the growth of tumors,” the researchers write.
They are now working to evaluate the optimal method of administering melittin as well as the toxicity and maximum tolerated doses for the treatment of breast cancer.