redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports – Your Universe Online
Bee stings and snake bites are not typically viewed as things that are beneficial to a person’s health, but new research out of the University of Illinois suggests that they could be powerful tools in the treatment of cancer.
[ Watch: Treating Cancer With Venom ]
In research presented at the 248th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS) in San Francisco, California on Monday, Dr. Dipanjan Pan described how venom from bees, snakes and scorpions could form the basis of next-generation cancer-fighting drugs.
Dr. Pan and his colleagues have developed a method which utilizes nanotechnology and makes it so the venom proteins specifically target malignant cells while keeping healthy ones safe from harm. Their work would reduce or eliminate cell damage and other painful side effects usually caused by the toxins, the study authors explained.
“We have safely used venom toxins in tiny nanometer-sized particles to treat breast cancer and melanoma cells in the laboratory. These particles, which are camouflaged from the immune system, take the toxin directly to the cancer cells, sparing normal tissue,” Dr. Pan said in a statement.
There are proteins and peptides in snake, bee and scorpion venom which can attach to cancer cell membranes when they are separated from other components of the toxins and tested individually, the researchers explained. They then used nanoparticles to disguise the toxins, and found that it bypassed healthy cells.
Previous studies have indicated this activity could potentially be used to block the growth and spread of cancer, and Pan’s team noted that some substances found in these venoms could be effective anti-tumor agents. However, simply injecting venom into a patient would have noticeable side effects, such as damage to heart muscle and nerve cells, unwanted clotting or bleeding beneath the skin.
During their research, the Illinois scientists identified a substance in honey bee venom known as melittin, which they claim kept cancer cells from multiplying. Since bees do not produce enough venom for it to be extracted on a regular basis, Dr. Pan and his colleagues opted to create synthetic melittin in the laboratory.
First, they conducted computational analysis to determine how the substance would work inside a nanoparticle. Next, they conducted a test in which they injected synthetic melittin into nanoparticles. They discovered that the toxins were so densely packed that they did not expand once they reached the bloodstream, and instead went straight for the tumor. Once there, they bound themselves to cancer stem cells, preventing them from growing and spreading.
Those stem cells are “what we are interested in,” Dr. Pan told Jen Christensen of CNN.com. “Those are the cells responsible for metastasizing and also responsible for having the cancer cells grow back. If we can target better using this technique, we potentially have a better cancer treatment.”
“Unlike chemotherapy, this more targeted technique would, in theory, only affect cancer cells,” Christensen added. “If it’s successful, this natural agent found in venom could become the basis for a whole legion of cancer-fighting drugs.”
Dr. Pan believes that synthetic peptides that mimic components of other venom, such as those from scorpions or snakes, have also proven successful as a potential cancer therapy using the nanoparticle treatment.
The next step, he added, is to examine how effective the approach is in rats and pigs. Within the next three to five years, the Illinois team hopes to launch a study involving actual cancer patients.
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