Venom from bees, snakes, or scorpions could form the basis of a new generation of cancer-fighting drugs, as scientists have devised a method for targeting venom proteins specifically to malignant cells while sparing healthy ones, which reduces or eliminates side effects that the toxins would otherwise cause.
“We have safely used venom toxins in tiny nanometer-sized particles to treat breast cancer and melanoma cells in the laboratory,” says Dipanjan Pan, Ph.D., who led the study. “These particles, which are camouflaged from the immune system, take the toxin directly to the cancer cells, sparing normal tissue.”
Dr. Pan and his team reported the results of their study at the 248th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS). and have released the following video:
Venom from snakes, bees, and scorpions contains proteins and peptides which, when separated from the other components and tested individually, can attach to cancer cell membranes. That activity could potentially block the growth and spread of the disease, other researchers have reported. Pan and his team say that some of the substances found in any of these venoms could be effective anti-tumor agents. However, injecting venoms into a patient would have side effects, including possible damage to heart muscle or nerve cells, unwanted clotting or, bleeding under the skin.
Pan and his team at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign set out to solve this problem by identifying a substance in the venom called melittin that keeps the cancer cells from multiplying. Bees make so little venom that it’s not feasible to extract it and remove the substance time after time, so they instead synthesized melittin in the lab.
To figure out how melittin would work inside a nanoparticle, they conducted computational studies. Next, they injected their synthetic toxin into nanoparticles.
“The peptide toxins we made are so tightly packed within the nanoparticle that they don’t leach out when exposed to the bloodstream and cause side effects,” Pan explained.
Instead, they go directly to the tumor, where they bind to cancer stem cells, blocking their growth and spread. Synthetic peptides that mimic components from other venoms, such as those from snakes or scorpions, also work well in the nanoparticles as a possible cancer therapy, Pan said.
In the future, the team plans to examine the new treatment approach in rats and pigs. Eventually, they hope to begin a study involving patients, hopefully in the next three to five years.