Study: The buzz about honeybee venom: Promising early research to treat breast cancer

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Contents

At a glance In-depth
Strengths and limitations Questions for your doctor              
What does this mean for me? Resources and reference 


STUDY AT A GLANCE

This study is about:

Early research on a possible treatment for breast cancer.


Why is this study important?

Early (basic) research on new drugs often begins with cancer cells in a dish or in animals before any studies are done in humans. These early lab studies help researchers select drugs that hold the most promise for clinical use. This study is an example of early research on a promising drug, melittin, in cells in a lab dish or in mice that may (or may not) be useful in breast cancer treatment of people in the future.


Study findings: 

Honeybee venom and its major component melittin kill human cancer cells in culture dishes, including cells from triple-negative and HER2-positive breast cancers, more effectively than normal cells. Researchers modified the melittin protein to increase its ability to target cancer cells.

The chemotherapy drug docetaxel combined with melittin killed breast cancer in mice more than docetaxel alone. This suggests that melittin may be useful in treating cancer. However, whether the same approach might work in people is unknown.

Before safety studies in humans could begin, many studies in other animals are needed to show whether melittin has other side effects. Small human safety trials are required before larger studies can determine whether melittin is helpful for treating cancer in people.
 

Strengths and Limitations:

Strength

These studies were well-designed. The findings support the idea that honeybee venom and its main ingredient, melittin, could kill breast cancer cells in a dish or in mice. 

Limitation

The major limitation is that these studies have only been done in laboratory models in cells and mice. It is not clear whether melittin would work the same way or be safe for people. The potential side effects of melittin in humans is unknown.


What does this mean for me?

Melittin is not ready for clinical use. Many studies will be needed to learn if it would be safe and helpful for people. While this research does not change any treatment recommendations, it does provide a hopeful possibility for a future treatment.

If you have HER2-positive or triple-negative breast cancer, talk to your doctor about the most appropriate treatment for you. You may want to ask whether there are new treatments available or whether participation in a clinical trial for a new treatment makes sense for you.

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This article is relevant for:

People with breast cancer particularly those with HER2-positive or triple-negative breast cancer.

This article is also relevant for:

Breast cancer survivors

Her2+ breast cancer

Metastatic cancer

Triple negative breast cancer

Women under 45

Women over 45

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Questions to Ask Your Doctor

  • What is the best treatment for my breast cancer?
  • Do you recommend any new drugs or treatment methods for me?
  • Given my personal and family history, should I consider any different treatments?
  • Are any clinical trials appropriate for me?

Who covered this study?

Cancer Health

Could honeybee venom lead to a breast cancer drug? This article rates 4.0 out of 5 stars

New York Post

Honeybee venom can kill aggressive breast cancer cells: study This article rates 2.0 out of 5 stars

Medical Express

Venom from honeybees found to kill aggressive breast cancer cells This article rates 3.5 out of 5 stars

This Weekend Life

Scientists buzzing over anticancer activity of bee venom (podcast) This article rates 3.0 out of 5 stars

Cosmo

Honeybee venom kills breast cancer cells This article rates 2.0 out of 5 stars

How we rated the media

IN-DEPTH REVIEW OF RESEARCH

Study background:

The active ingredient of honeybee venom is a small protein called melittin. Melittin acts by creating “pores,” holes on the surface of cells. Other molecules that can kill the cells enter through the pores. Melittin preferentially attacks cancer cells compared to normal cells. This preference suggested to researchers that it might be useful in treating cancer.


Researchers of this study wanted to know:

Whether honeybee venom and its major active component melittin could prevent cancer cell growth or kill breast cancer cells in cell cultures or in mice.

Populations looked at in this study:

No studies were done in humans. Cells from human breast cancers were cultured in the lab, and tested with different drugs to look at the effect of melittin on cell growth. Researchers also looked at whether breast cancers in mice were affected by these drugs.


Study findings: 

Honeybee venom and its major component melittin can kill cultured cancer cells, including cancer cells from triple-negative and HER2-positive breast cancers. Both the venom and melittin affect the function of EGFR and HER2, proteins on breast cancer cells that are linked to cancer growth.

If a portion of the melittin protein is changed, it can no longer interact with the cancer cells and does not kill cancer cells. This shows that killing cancer cells with melittin is dependent on this portion of the protein and is a specific interaction (rather than making cells sick in general).

The melittin protein preferentially interacts with cancer cells and not normal cells. When the part of the melittin protein that interferes with EGFR and HER2 functions was genetically altered with a preference for cancer cells, researchers observed more increased death of cancer cells.

The chemotherapy drug docetaxel killed breast cancer cells in mice more effectively when combined with melittin. This finding suggests that melittin may be useful to treat cancer. However, it is not known whether this would be true in people.

Many studies in other animals are needed to show whether melittin has other side effects or is safe for people. Human safety trials are required before larger human studies can be conducted to determine whether melittin is a helpful cancer treatment.


Strengths and Limitations:

Strength

These studies were well-designed and included the appropriate controls and statistical analyses. These findings support the idea that honeybee venom and its main active ingredient, melittin, can kill breast cancer cells in a dish or in mice. 

Limitations

The major limitation to this work is that these are early studies done only in laboratory models in cells and mice.

Would melittin work the same way in humans as it does in mice? While melittin is a promising drug for mouse breast cancers or to stop growth of TNBC and HER2-positive breast cancer cells grown in a dish, it is not clear whether melittin would work similarly on breast cancer in people.

Would melittin be safe to give to people? The potential side effects of melittin in humans is unknown. Additional experiments in animals are needed before safety tests can be done in people. In general, while mice are a good model system for understanding a drug’s effects, tests in animals that are more similar to humans are needed to ensure that bee venom and melittin cause no major problems (e.g., affecting heart or brain function) before safety tests in humans would be considered.


Context

Honeybee venom is known to have anti-cancer activity against many types of cancer cells grown in a dish. The main component of honeybee venom is melittin. Melittin is a protein that can prevent growth or metastases of breast cancer in mice. This study suggests that melittin causes the anti-cancer activity of honeybee venom. Although this is a promising treatment for breast cancer, studies have so far been conducted only on human cancer cells in a dish or on breast cancer in mice. Much more research is needed to know whether melittin would safely slow or stop breast cancer growth in humans.


Conclusions:

Melittin is a promising drug in the early stages of research. It is not known whether the anti-cancer effects seen in mice will hold up in humans. It is not known whether melittin would be safe to give to people. Additional research is needed to determine whether this drug would be helpful in cancer treatment. The type of studies needed typically take years, but this study provides hope for improved treatment of breast cancer.

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Posted 11/10/20

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