A New Take on "Killer Bees" -- Wash U. Researchers Use Bee Venom To Fight Cancer


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Scientists at Washington University in St. Louis are working on a fascinating way to battle cancer in laboratory mice.

The research involves the use of the bee venom, melittin, and so-called "nanobees" that fly through the bloodstream and deliver a toxic sting to cancerous tumors.

In an article published yesterday in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, the Wash. U. researchers report that the bee toxin reduced the growth of breast cancer tumors in mice by nearly 25 percent and the size of melanoma tumors by 88 percent compared to untreated tumors.

"Melittin has been of interest to researchers because in high enough concentration it can destroy any cell it comes into contact with, making it an effective antibacterial and antifungal agent and potentially an anticancer agent," says co-author Paul Schlesinger. "Cancer cells can adapt and develop resistance to many anticancer agents that alter gene function or target a cell's DNA, but it's hard for cells to find a way around the mechanism that melittin uses to kill."

The "nanobees" that deliver the toxin are composed mainly of perfluorocarbon, an inert compound used in artificial blood, that can pass easily through the bloodstream. A targeting agent added to the nanobees allowed the microscopic particles to seek out and attach to growing blood vessels around tumors. As a result, the researchers say the nanobees actually protected the mice's red cells and other tissues from the toxic effects of melittin.

The results suggest that nanobees could not only impact established cancerous tumors but may also prevent cancer from developing.

"Nanobees are an effective way to package the useful, but potentially deadly, melittin, sequestering it so that it neither harms normal cells nor gets degraded before it reaches its target," states Schlesinger.

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