Study: Bee venom kills aggressive breast cancer cells

The European honeybee has been the source of honey and venom used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years.

A new study out of Australia suggests the venom from honeybees and bumblebees also can fight breast cancer — and win.

Ciara Duffy, from the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research and the University of Western Australia, used the venom from 312 honeybees and bumblebees in Western Australia, Ireland and England to test the effect of the venom on the clinical subtypes of breast cancer, including triple-negative breast cancer, which has limited treatment options.

“Understanding the molecular basis and specificity of bee venom against cancer cells is key for developing and optimizing novel effective therapeutics from a natural product that is widely available and cost-effective to produce in many communities around the world,” Duffy wrote in the study, published in npj Precision Oncology.

Duffy’s results showed honeybee venom rapidly destroyed triple-negative breast cancer and HER2-enriched breast cancer cells.

The active component of honeybee venom is melittin, which is a positively charged, amphipathic 26-amino-acid peptide. Duffy wrote that both honeybee venom and melittin have demonstrated antitumoral effects in melanoma, glioblastoma (which killed Sen. John McCain), leukemia, and ovarian, cervical and pancreatic cancers.

“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,” Duffy wrote. “The venom was extremely potent.”

A specific concentration of honeybee venom can induce 100% cancer cell death, while having little effect on normal cells.

“We found that melittin can completely destroy cancer cell membranes within 60 minutes,” Duffy wrote.

Duffy’s research was part of her Ph.D., Medical Xpress wrote. “I began with collecting Perth honeybee venom. Perth bees are some of the healthiest in the world.

“The bees were put to sleep with carbon dioxide and kept on ice before the venom barb was pulled out from the abdomen of the bee and the venom extracted by careful dissection,” she said.

There are 20,000 species of bees, but Duffy wanted to compare the effects of Perth honeybee venom to other honeybee populations in Ireland and England, as well as to the venom of bumblebees.

“I found that the European honeybee in Australia, Ireland and England produced almost identical effects in breast cancer compared to normal cells. However, bumblebee venom was unable to induce cell death even at very high concentrations,” Duffy wrote.