In the past, alternative medicine practitioners have promoted honey products for treating cancer despite proof it works. But a recent discovery by an Australian scientist about honey bee venom’s effect on breast cancer cells may change all that.
Dr Ciara Duffy from University of Western Australia’s Harry Perkins Institute has published research in Nature Precision Oncology testing the impact of bee venom on breast cancer.
Using 312 honey and bumble bees from Australia, Ireland and England, Dr Duffy found that honey bee venom rapidly destroyed one of the most aggressive forms of breast cancer.
“We tested a very small, positively charged peptide in honey bee venom called melittin, which we could reproduce synthetically, and found that the synthetic product mirrored the majority of the anti-cancer effects of honey bee venom,” Dr Duffy said.
“We found both honey bee venom and melittin significantly, selectively and rapidly reduced the viability of triple-negative breast cancer and HER2-enriched breast cancer cells.”
What does bee venom do to breast cancer cells?
Not only does melittin kill breast cancer cells extremely quickly — 100% in just 60 minutes, Dr Duffy found — but it did so without much damage to other cells.
On top of that, Dr Duffy’s research found that peptide also reduced cancer cells’ chemical messages, which are crucial to cancer cell growth and division.
“We looked at how honey bee venom and melittin affect the cancer signalling pathways, the chemical messages that are fundamental for cancer cell growth and reproduction, and we found that very quickly these signalling pathways were shut down,” Dr Duffy said.
These results were consistent across honey bees from all countries. However, bumblebee venom did not have the same effect, even at high concentrations.
What does this mean for the future of breast cancer treatment?
There are a couple of other reasons why melittin is such a promising treatment, Dr Duffy found.
Firstly, it appears to work well with other cancer drugs. Dr Duffy found that the peptide made holes in the cancer cell membranes, which could make way for other treatments.
Secondly, melittin can synthesised and the synthetic version appears to work as well as the real stuff, Dr Duffy said.
Western Australia’s Chief Scientist Professor Peter Klinken was stoked about the discovery.
“This is an incredibly exciting observation that melittin, a major component of honey bee venom, can suppress the growth of deadly breast cancer cells, particularly triple-negative breast cancer,” he said.
And with bees under threat around the world, this is just another reason to try and save our humble insect friends.