By Holly Giles | Deputy Editor
It has been known for a long time that honey has medicinal benefits, including combating allergies, reducing hay fever and lowering cholesterol levels. New research suggests the benefits of bees may go even further, with honeybee venom being shown to kill breast cancer cells.
Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer in the UK, affecting over 55,000 people each year. This figure equates to 150 people a day receiving the news that they have breast cancer.
The most common treatment for breast cancer is a combination of chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery. When used together these techniques are able to target cancerous cells in the breast and track down any which many have spread further afield. This gives patients the best chance of survival. Breast cancer is the subject of many research trials due to its prevalence and has double the survival rate of forty years ago.
A particular research trial of interest is being conducted by the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research in Western Australia. They have been looking at the effect of melittin, a compound found in honeybee venom, on breast cancer cells.
The trial involved venom from over 300 honeybees which were subsequently introduced to breast cancer cells in a lab setting. The venom extracts were described by lead researcher Ciara Duffy as “extremely potent” with one concentration showing dead cancer cells within an hour of exposure, without harming other cells.
As well as killing cells, one concentration was able to reduce the chemical messages of cancer cells within twenty minutes. These messages are needed for cells to divide and grow.
“[The chemical messages] are fundamental for cancer cell growth and reproduction, and we found that very quickly these signalling pathways were shut down”
This discovery may have vast clinical implications as while melittin occurs naturally in honeybee venom it could be manufactured synthetically for mass production.
A potential clinical use for this discovery may be through combining with chemotherapy. Melittin causes pores in cancer cell membranes, allowing more efficient entry of chemotherapy drugs into cancerous cells to exert their effects. Duffy explained: “The combination of melittin and docetaxel was extremely efficient in reducing tumour growth in mice.”
When looking at the future other cancer researchers remind readers: “It’s very early days … Many compounds can kill a breast cancer cell in a dish or in a mouse. But there’s a long way to go from those discoveries to something that can change clinical practice” explained Professor Alex Swarbrick from the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Sydney.
Despite these hurdles the team remains hopeful that this discovery will be an option for the future. Professor Peter Klinken, Western Australia’s chief scientist, said:
“Significantly, this study demonstrates how melittin interferes with signalling 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 disease”.
Duffy and the team are now looking at future directions of their research, specifically in the optimum method to deliver melittin to patients, as well as toxicity levels and the ideal dosage.
It may be some time before the use of melittin becomes common practice for cancer patients, but it provides hope that more and more of those 150 patients each day will survive their ordeal with breast cancer.
Science and Technology Holly Giles