Bee venom shows promise, but needs more study

Elizabeth Ko, MD and Eve Glazier, MD

Dear Doctors: We heard a story on the news that bee venom can cure breast cancer. Is that really true? How does stuff like that even get researched?

Dear Reader: It’s true that recent research has shown that an active component found in the venom from honeybees is toxic to certain types of cancer cells. Before we get any deeper into this topic, though, it’s important to note these results were obtained in laboratory tests. So, while bee venom has indeed shown promise in killing a range of cancer cells, a treatment based on these findings that can be used in humans will take years more study and testing.

It may seem that using bee venom to fight cancer comes out of left field, but the idea actually reaches back to the dawn of medicine. The pharmaceutical use of honeybee products, known as apitherapy, dates back at least 5,000 years to ancient Egypt, China and Greece. Medical practitioners of the time used honeybee venom to treat joint inflammation and pain, and the antibacterial properties of honey were harnessed in approaches as various as treating wounds, easing indigestion and embalming the dead. In modern medicine, bee venom has become a subject of interest in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis.

The venom that honeybees inject when they sting is a complex mixture of proteins, enzymes, sugars, lipids and other bioactive agents. The bulk of it is made up of short chains of amino acids, known as peptides, which are the building blocks of proteins such as collagen, elastin and keratin. The most abundant of these is a peptide called melittin, which is responsible for most of the medicinal effects of bee venom. (Don’t worry, bee lovers: Melittin can be synthetically produced.) Scientists have been interested in the anti-tumor properties of melittin for many years, including in the fight against melanoma, the most virulent and deadly of the skin cancers.

The study you’re asking about was conducted by scientists at the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research in Western Australia and was recently published in the journal Precision Oncology. The researchers evaluated the venom from 312 honeybees and bumblebees and found it to be surprisingly effective at destroying certain types of cancer cells, including those in some subtypes of breast cancer. These include triple-negative breast cancer and HER2-enriched, each of which has limited treatment options.

At a certain concentration, the serum formulated from the bee venom killed the cancer cells within an hour, and at the same time did limited damage to the surrounding healthy cells. The peptide melittin, which is already known for its ability to break down lipid membranes, was also able to disrupt the growth of the cancer cells. The researchers found that the peptide achieved this by disrupting the signaling pathways that cancer cells use to replicate, thus significantly slowing tumor growth.

These findings hold promise, but challenges remain. Compounds that kill cancer in a petri dish don’t always translate into successful medications. More research is needed to create a safe and effective drug.

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