Honeybee venom shows promise in breast cancer research


September 22, 2020

Honey bee (Apis mellifera). Photo courtesy of, and copyrighted by, Gene White, pmimages@earthlink.net

Honeybee (Apis mellifera). Photo courtesy of, and copyrighted by, Gene White, pmimages@earthlink.net

October is just around the corner, and what better way to recognize Breast Cancer Awareness Month than with news on how stinging insects may help fight the disease.

Research conducted to explore the cancer fighting properties of venom from Western honeybees (Apis mellifera), and the venom’s active component called melittin, on various types of breast cancer cells proved successful, according to results published in npj Precision Oncology in September.

Dr. Ciara Duffy of the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research and The University of Western Australia used the venom from 312 honeybees and buff-tailed bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) in Perth Western Australia, Ireland and England, to test the effects of the venom on the clinical subtypes of breast cancer, including triple-negative breast cancer, an aggressive form for which treatment options are limited.

“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,” Dr. Duffy said in a press statement. “The venom was extremely potent.”

A specific concentration of honeybee venom caused 100 percent of the cancer cells to die, but the impact on normal cells was minimal, the research showed.

“We found that melittin can completely destroy cancer cell membranes within 60 minutes,” she said.

In addition, within 20 minutes the melittin in the honeybee venom also substantially reduced the chemical messages of cancer cells that are necessary for their growth and division.

Dr. Duffy said she collected venom from honeybees in Perth, Australia. “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 barb was pulled out from the abdomen of the bee and the venom extracted by careful dissection.”

She said she 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 found that the European honeybee in Australia, Ireland and England produced almost identical effects in breast cancer compared to normal cells,” Dr. Duffy said. “However, bumblebee venom was unable to induce cell death even at very high concentrations.”

According to the published study, other research has shown honeybee venom and melittin have shown positive antitumor outcomes in pancreatic, ovarian, cervical and non-small-cell lung cancers, as well as glioblastoma, melanoma and leukemia.

About the Author

Diane Sofranec

Diane Sofranec is the senior editor for PMP magazine. She can be reached at dsofranec@northcoastmedia.net or 216-706-3793.

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