Revolutionary potential cancer treatment has a sting in its tail

Kerrin Harrison

It’s what makes bee stings sting, but bee venom may also be a force for good, according to new medical research. The clear liquid that bees shoot through their stingers when they feel threatened has been used as a natural therapy for generations, but now science is beginning to understand its curative powers. New research from the University of Western Australia and the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research has found that honeybee venom kills aggressive breast cancer cells and suggests it may also have applications with other cancers. The researchers harvested venom from Australian, Irish and English honeybees and bumblebees, and tested its effect on breast cancer cells in a laboratory situation, including hard-to-treat triple-negative breast cancer.
Published in September 2020 by the medical journal NPJ Precision Oncology, the research results revealed that honeybee venom significantly, selectively and quickly destroyed triple-negative breast cancer cells and HER2-enriched breast cancer cells. Breast cancer is the second most common cancer affecting humans, and the most common cancer in women, with more than two million new cases diagnosed in 2018. It is most common in developed countries, with Australia having the seventh highest rate in the world, followed by the UK at eighth, New Zealand at 10th and the USA at 22nd. The research found that it was a specific component in the venom of the European honeybee (Apis mellifera), a peptide called melittin, that was responsible for most of its anti-cancer effects. Study lead Dr Ciara Duffy said honeybee venom was extremely potent, and could kill 100 percent of cancer cells, while barely affecting normal cells. “We found that melittin can completely destroy cancer cell membranes within 60 minutes.” Within only 20 minutes it had also substantially reduced the chemical signalling pathways essential to cancer cell growth and cell division.
“Beyond breast cancer, we also outline targeted modifications of melittin for potential use in combination with chemotherapy for the treatment of other aggressive cancers.” The researchers noted that humans have appreciated the medicinal benefits of bee products such as honey, propolis and venom for thousands of years. However, the cancer-battling potential of bee venom had until now been poorly understood. “No-one had previously compared the effects of honeybee venom across all the different subtypes of breast cancer and normal cells,” said study lead Dr Ciara Duffy. More studies are required to assess the optimum method of delivery of melittin, as well as toxicities and dosage.
Sources: The University of Western Australia, NPJ Precision Oncology, World Cancer Research Fund International, Global Cancer Observatory
Disclaimer: This article is designed to inform and not to provide a direction on medication. The research quoted was conducted under laboratory conditions and was not a human trial. Bee products can cause a variety of reactions in susceptible people, so please consult your doctor before using any bee or honey products.