Honeybee venom kills hard-to-treat breast cancer cells in new study

An active component of honeybee venom rapidly killed two particularly aggressive forms of breast cancer in a laboratory study.

bee colony
  • New laboratory studies by a team of scientists found that the active component of honeybee venom induced death in two forms of malignant breast cancer cells that are notoriously difficult to treat.
  • The magic healing molecule in the honeybees' venom appears to be melittin, which rapidly killed cancer cells in under an hour.
  • In the future, doctors could potentially use melittin alongside chemotherapy drugs to increase the efficacy of the treatment.

Since ancient times, the honeybee's (Apis mellifera) honey has been hailed for its medicinal properties. Now, scientists are discovering the miraculous healing potential of its sting in curing cancer. New laboratory studies by a team of Australian researchers have found that the active component of honeybee venom, melittin, rapidly killed two forms of malignant breast cancer cells that are notoriously difficult to treat while leaving healthy cells unharmed.

The magic molecule 

Previously, honeybee venom has shown potential in treating other medical conditions such as eczema and tumors, and it has been known to have anticancer properties. How the venom works against tumors on a molecular level hasn't been understood, but science just got a lot closer.

It seems that the magic healing ingredient in the honeybees' venom is melittin — the zingy molecule responsible for producing the painful sting of a bee. Scientists at the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research in Perth, Australia and the University of Western Australia found that the melittin induced cancer cell death.

Their lab study, reported in the journal NPJ Precision Oncology, is the first to have looked into the effect the ingredient has on a range of breast cancers, the most common cancer in women worldwide. The two most aggressive and hard-to-treat types are known as triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) and HER2-enriched breast cancer, which tend to mutate to resist existing treatments. The researchers found that melittin rapidly kills these cancer types and, critically, does so with no negative effects on normal cells.

"The venom was extremely potent," said research leader Ciara Duffy from The Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research in a news release. "We found that melittin can completely destroy cancer cell membranes within 60 minutes."

The lab study also found that bumblebee venom (which does not contain melittin) did not kill those particular breast cancer cells.

How it works

Melittin disarms cancer cells by puncturing holes in their outer membrane. Another stunning effect: within just 20 minutes of exposure to melittin, the chemical messages cancer cells need to grow and divide are disrupted.

"We looked at how honeybee venom and melittin affect the cancer signaling pathways, the chemical messages that are fundamental for cancer cell growth and reproduction, and we found that very quickly these signaling pathways were shut down," said Duffy.

The molecule is able to do this by stopping the activation of receptors that signal growth factors in the cells' membranes. The large number of these receptors in HER2-enriched cancer cells and some TNBC cells is one reason for their uncontrollable growth. Melittin seems to halt the cell's proliferation by blocking those growth signals from getting through.

"Significantly, this study demonstrates how melittin interferes with signalling pathways within breast cancer cells to reduce cell replication," said Western Australia's Chief Scientist Professor Peter Klinken. "It provides another wonderful example of where compounds in nature can be used to treat human diseases."

Enhancing current cancer treatments

The team also tested to see if melittin could be used with existing chemotherapy drugs, as the pores in the membranes that it creates may allow other treatments to faster penetrate and kill cancer cells.

They tested the idea on a lab mouse with triple-negative breast cancer. They injected it with a combination of melittin and docetaxel — a drug used to treat a number of cancers including breast cancer. The mixture proved to be more effective at shrinking the tumors than either melittin or docetaxel alone.

In the future, doctors could potentially use melittin alongside chemotherapy drugs to enhance the efficacy of the treatment. This may allow them to reduce the dosage of chemotherapy drugs, and the adverse side effects that come with it.

The authors in the study point out that honeybee venom is inexpensive and easy to obtain, thus making it a fantastic option for cancer treatment in regions and countries with poorly resourced health services and care.

"Honeybee venom is available globally and offers cost effective and easily accessible treatment options in remote or less developed regions," the authors write. "Further research will be required to assess whether the venom of some genotypes of bees has more potent or specific anticancer activities, which could then be exploited."

Though exciting, this research is still in early, lab testing stages. The researchers will still need to perform clinical trials to assess the safety and efficacy of melittin for treating breast cancer in humans.

This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.

BepiColombo

Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

Learn the Netflix model of high-performing teams

Erin Meyer explains the keeper test and how it can make or break a team.

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  • There are numerous strategies for building and maintaining a high-performing team, but unfortunately they are not plug-and-play. What works for some companies will not necessarily work for others. Erin Meyer, co-author of No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention, shares one alternative employed by one of the largest tech and media services companies in the world.
  • Instead of the 'Rank and Yank' method once used by GE, Meyer explains how Netflix managers use the 'keeper test' to determine if employees are crucial pieces of the larger team and are worth fighting to keep.
  • "An individual performance problem is a systemic problem that impacts the entire team," she says. This is a valuable lesson that could determine whether the team fails or whether an organization advances to the next level.
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Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash
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