New research published in the international journal npj Precision Oncology reports that honeybee venom is capable of killing aggressive triple-negative breast cancer and HER2-enriched breast cancer cells. The study used the venom from 312 honeybees and bumblebees in Perth Western Australia, Ireland and England, determining that both their venom and another compound called melittin can destroy breast cancer cells and act as anticancer agents.
"No-one had previously compared the effects of honeybee venom or melittin across all of the different subtypes of breast cancer and normal cells. We tested honeybee venom on normal breast cells, and cells from the clinical subtypes of breast cancer: hormone receptor-positive, HER2-enriched, and triple-negative breast cancer,” said Dr. Ciara Duffy from the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research and The University of Western Australia. "We tested a very small, positively charged peptide in honeybee venom called melittin, which we could reproduce synthetically, and found that the synthetic product mirrored the majority of the anti-cancer effects of honeybee venom.”
Triple-negative breast cancer is known to be one of the most aggressive types of breast cancer and there are limited treatment options for the disease. Dr. Duffy found that venom and the melittin compound offer anti-cancer properties that could be helpful in potential treatments.
"We found both honeybee venom and melittin significantly, selectively and rapidly reduced the viability of triple-negative breast cancer and HER2-enriched breast cancer cells. The venom was extremely potent," Dr. Duffy said. "We found that melittin can completely destroy cancer cell membranes within 60 minutes."
This works because melittin impedes the chemical messages that trigger cancer cell growth and division – all within 20 minutes. "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,” explained Duffy. “Melittin modulated the signaling in breast cancer cells by suppressing the activation of the receptor that is commonly overexpressed in triple-negative breast cancer, the epidermal growth factor receptor, and it suppressed the activation of HER2 which is over-expressed in HER2-enriched breast cancer," she said.
Meanwhile, Dr. Duffy and her team found that another particular concentration of honeybee venom can trigger 100% cancer cell death while simultaneously not affecting healthy cells.
While further research will need to be conducted in order to determine the best way that melittin and venom could be integrated into cancer treatments, Dr. Duffy’s experiments in mice models show that melittin is effective at reducing tumor growth when paired with chemotherapies, such as docetaxel.
Western Australia's Chief Scientist Professor Peter Klinken said "This is an incredibly exciting observation that melittin, a major component of honeybee venom, can suppress the growth of deadly breast cancer cells, particularly triple-negative breast cancer. Significantly, this study demonstrates how melittin interferes with signaling pathways within breast cancer cells to reduce cell replication. It provides another wonderful example of where compounds in nature can be used to treat human diseases", he said.