When it comes to medical treatments, apitherapy may not be on everyone’s radar. But this alternative treatment, which involves the medicinal use of products made by bees, is being increasingly studied and used to treat a variety of health problems.

Bee venom is one of the most popular products used as apitherapy and is sometimes given as an injection to treat such conditions as rheumatoid arthritis, nerve pain (neuralgia) and multiple sclerosis. Bee products such as honey, pollen and propolis can be used to treat everything from sore throats and cough to allergies and wounds.

Now: While laboratory studies have shown that a specific type of bee venom (honeybee) is effective at killing several types of cancer cells, including those from lung, brain, ovarian and pancreatic malignancies, researchers have recently found that this venom appears to have another important benefit—it rapidly and effectively destroys certain types of breast cancer cells.

Study details:The laboratory study, which was published in Nature Precision Oncology, investigated the effects of honeybee venom on normal breast cells and the cells of specific types of breast malignancies (triple-negative and HER2-enriched breast cancers), which are usually resistant to normal treatments.

The researchers also extracted from the honeybee venom a substance called melittin, which makes up about half of the venom. After studying the structure of melittin, which is a type of amino acid, the researchers were able to reproduce it synthetically. Both the honeybee venom and melittin were found to have significant effects on both triple negative and HER-2 enriched breast cancer cells.

“The venom was extremely potent,” said Ciara Duffy, PhD, study author and a researcher at Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research and The University of Western Australia. The honeybee venom, when used at a specific concentration, killed 100% of the breast cancer cells tested with little effect on the normal breast cells.          

The melittin was found to destroy the membranes of breast cancer cells within 60 minutes. It had the added ability to create small holes in breast cancer cells that allowed an existing breast cancer chemotherapy drug, called docetaxel (Taxotere), to enter the cells and kill them. When tested in mice, the combination of melittin and docetaxel was “extremely efficient” at reducing tumor growth in mice, according to the study.

Interestingly, when venom from bumblebees was tested, it had no effect on the breast cancer cells. Both the honeybee and bumblebee venoms used in the study were harvested from bees in Perth Western Australia, Ireland and England.

Takeaway: Before honeybee venom or melittin can enter clinical trials as a treatment for breast cancer, future research will need to investigate how to deliver the venom and melittin to humans at a dose that does not cause toxicity. Because the study found that both potential treatments caused minimal damage to normal breast cells in a laboratory setting, the researchers are hopeful that these findings may someday lead to a real breakthrough in breast cancer treatment.

Source: Study titled “Honeybee Venom and Melittin Suppress Growth Factor Receptor Activation in HER2-Enriched and Triple-Negative Breast Cancer,” led by researchers at Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research and The University of Western Australia, both in Perth, published in Nature Precision Oncology.