Venom from honeybees has been found to rapidly kill aggressive and hard-to-treat breast cancer cells, finds new Australian research. The study also found when the venom’s main component was combined with existing chemotherapy drugs, it was extremely efficient at reducing tumour growth in mice.

A close up of honey bees in a hive.
The research found honeybees were effective at killing breast cancer cells.(ABC News)

Venom from honeybees has been found to rapidly kill aggressive and hard-to-treat breast cancer cells, according to potentially ground-breaking new Australian research.

Key points:

  • The research was published in the journal Nature Precision Oncology
  • It found honeybee venom was effective in killing breast cancer cells
  • Researchers say the discovery is exciting but there is a long way to go

The study also found when the venom’s main component was combined with existing chemotherapy drugs, it was extremely efficient at reducing tumour growth in mice.

Published in the journal Nature Precision Oncology, the research was conducted at Perth’s Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research by Dr Ciara Duffy as part of her PhD.

Dr Duffy hoped the discovery would lead to the development of a treatment for triple-negative breast cancer, which accounts for 10 to 15 per cent of all breast cancers and for which there are currently no clinically effective targeted therapies.

She said the honeybee venom had proven extremely potent.

A portrait shot of Ciara Duffy in a lab wearing a white lab coat and smiling at the camera.
Dr Ciara Duffy from Western Australia’s Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research has been undertaking the study.(Supplied)

“We found that the venom from honeybees is remarkably effective in killing some of these really aggressive breast cancer cells at concentrations which aren’t as damaging to normal cells,” Dr Duffy said.

The research showed a specific concentration of the venom killed 100 per cent of triple-negative breast cancer and HER2-enriched breast cancer cells within 60 minutes, while having minimal effects on normal cells.

Bee venom harvested in Perth

Dr Duffy harvested venom from honeybee hives at the University of Western Australia, as well as from Ireland and England.

“Perth bees are some of the healthiest in the world,” she said.

The bees were put to sleep with carbon dioxide and kept on ice before the venom was extracted and injected into the tumours.

Dr Ciara Duffy looking through a microscope in a medical lab, wearing blue latex gloves and a white lab coat.
Dr Ciara Duffy said Perth bees were some of the healthiest in the world.(Supplied)

She said a component of the venom called melittin is what had the killing effect.

The researchers reproduced the melittin synthetically and found it mirrored the majority of the anti-cancer effects of the honeybee venom.

“What melittin does is it actually enters the surface, or the plasma membrane and forms holes or pores and it just causes the cell to die,” Dr Duffy said.

The researchers also discovered within 20 minutes the melittin had another powerful effect.

A beekeeper wearing a protective suit tends to a hive full of honey bees.
The component melittin in the venom is believed to have the killing effect.(ABC News)

“We found it was interfering with the main messaging or cancer-signalling pathways that are fundamental for the growth and replication of cancer cells,” she said.

It effectively shut down the signalling pathways for the reproduction of triple-negative and HER2 cancer cells.

‘Incredibly exciting discovery’, Chief Scientist says

Dr Duffy also examined the effect of melittin used in combination with existing chemotherapy drugs, such as docetaxel.

She found the holes in breast cancer membranes caused by the melittin allowed the chemotherapy to enter the cell and worked extremely efficiently in reducing tumour growth in mice.

Peter Klinken smiling, wearing a dark suit and white shirt while standing in front of an Indigenous wall painting.
WA Chief Scientist Peter Klinken said the discovery was “incredibly exciting”.(ABC News: Nicolas Perpitch)

Western Australia’s Chief Scientist Professor Peter Klinken said it was a significant development, which provided another example of where compounds in nature could be used to treat human diseases.

“I think it’s incredibly exciting that they’ve made this observation that the molecule melittin can actually affect the cancer cells, but that it can work in combination with other drugs which come from natural products as well, and in combination they’re really knocking these cancer cells on the head,” Professor Klinken said.

Dr Duffy did not want to use words like breakthrough or cure, stressing this was just the beginning and much more research needed to be done.

v”There’s a long way to go in terms of how we would deliver it in the body and, you know, looking at toxicities and maximum tolerated doses before it ever went further,” she said.

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Adnan Aftab is an internet entrepreneur, and philanthropist. He is known for co-founding Vulms.org and many others

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