Dr. Ciara Duffy has recently completed a study in Australia that found that venom from honeybees sourced partly from Ireland can “induce cancer cell death in hard to treat triple-negative breast cancer with minimal effect on healthy cells.”
Dr. Duffy, who conducted her study at Perth’s Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research at the Cancer Epigenetics Laboratory and The University of Western Australia, said the aim of the research was to investigate the anti-cancer properties of honeybee venom, and a component compound, melittin, on different types of breast cancer cells.
The results of her study, which was overseen as part of Dr. Duffy's PhD by A/Prof. Pilar Blancafort, have been recently published in the prestigious international journal NJP Nature Precision Oncology.
While there are 20,000 species of bees, Dr. 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 began with collecting Perth honeybee venom,” Dr. Duffy said, “Perth bees are some of the healthiest in the world.
Dr. Duffy ultimately studied the venom from 312 honeybees and bumblebees.
“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."
The results revealed that honeybee venom rapidly destroyed triple-negative breast cancer and HER2-enriched breast cancer cells.
She added: “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.”
Dr. Duffy said: “No-one had previously compared the effects of honeybee venom or melittin across all of the different subtypes of breast cancer and normal cells.
“We tested honeybee venom on normal breast cells, and cells from the clinical subtypes of breast cancer: hormone receptor positive, HER2-enriched, and triple-negative breast cancer.
“We tested a very small, positively charged peptide in honeybee venom called melittin, which we could reproduce synthetically, and found that the synthetic product mirrored the majority of the anti-cancer effects of honeybee venom.
“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.
“The venom was extremely potent,” Dr. Duffy said.
Dr. Duffy’s research found that a specific concentration of honeybee venom can induce 100% cancer cell death while having minimal effects on normal cells. She said: “We found that melittin can completely destroy cancer cell membranes within 60 minutes."
Through her research, Dr. Duffy also discovered that melittin in honeybee venom also has another remarkable effect - within 20 minutes, melittin was able to substantially reduce the chemical messages of cancer cells that are essential to cancer cell growth and cell division.
“We looked at how honeybee 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.
“Melittin modulated the signalling in breast cancer cells by suppressing the activation of the receptor that is commonly overexpressed in triple-negative breast cancer, the epidermal growth factor receptor, and it suppressed the activation of HER2 which is over-expressed in HER2-enriched breast cancer,” she said.
Responding to Dr. Duffy’s research, Western Australia’s Chief Scientist Professor Peter Klinken said: “This is an incredibly exciting observation that melittin, a major component of honeybee venom, can suppress the growth of deadly breast cancer cells, particularly triple-negative breast cancer.
“Significantly, this study demonstrates how melittin interferes with signaling 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 diseases.”
Speaking with ABC News in Australia, Dr. Duffy stopped short of calling her research a “cure.”
"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.