I’m not a devoted student of all the health advice poured out by movie star Gwyneth Paltrow, so I can’t comment on that one.
But when she claimed an old injury “disappeared” thanks to an ancient therapy, it did capture my attention. This was something worth looking into.
“People use it to get rid of inflammation and scarring. It’s actually pretty incredible. But man, it’s painful.”
Well, Gwyneth, it would be. Bee stings are painful. . .but apparently helpful, too. . .
It seems that venom from bees stimulates pain-killing endorphins, lowers inflammation and boosts the immune system. Bee venom also has antibacterial and antiviral properties.
The therapy was practiced in Egypt, China and Greece over two thousand years ago.
Hippocrates, the “Father of Medicine” recognized the benefits of bee sting therapy for treating arthritis and joint disorders.
Today, bees have become a buzzword in science circles (sorry, I couldn’t resist). Medical researchers think they can utilize another action of bee venom – its ability to act strongly against tumors.
Nanobees target cancer cells
It’s not possible to inject the large doses of bee venom required for cancer patients without causing a bigger sting than anyone planned on. A large dose of bee venom can cause damage to heart and nerve cells, cause bleeding under the skin and damage red blood cells.
To use it safely, scientists at Washington University School of Medicine took melittin, the most important active ingredient in bee venom (it makes up about half its dry weight), and attached it to nanoparticles.
These are synthetically manufactured ultra-tiny spheres.
They are a product of medical nanotechnology, a cutting-edge advancement that manufactures things by manipulating single atoms and molecules.
The combination of melittin and nanoparticles is called nanobees. Once injected, they circulate in the bloodstream and head straight for the tumor. When they arrive, they go on the attack.
Tested on mice, the bee venom extract carried by nanobees slowed the growth of breast cancer by nearly a quarter. Skin cancer shrank by three-quarters and precancerous lesions were wiped out. Damage to healthy cells was minimal.
Cancer cells are poked to death
Nanobees destroy cancer cells by apoptosis, a naturally occurring method of cell death. The therapy achieves this by opening pores in a cancer cell’s membrane to allow its contents to escape.
This is preferable to an external method of cellular destruction (e.g. chemotherapy), that can also damage or destroy healthy tissue.
A member of the study team, professor Samuel Wickline said:
“In effect, we’ve got something that does what a bee does except it’s a synthetic particle. It’s got a stinger and injector.
“The nanoparticle attaches itself to the cell of choice and then the melittin material comes off the particle and goes directly into the cell without going into the bloodstream.”
Another member of the research team, Dr. Paul Schlesinger, said melittin “has been of interest to researchers because, in high enough concentration, it can destroy any cell it comes into contact with.
“Cancer cells can develop resistance to many 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.
“Nanobees are an effective way to package the useful but potentially deadly melittin so it neither harms normal cells nor gets degraded before it reaches its target.”
At the University of Illinois, Dr. Dipanjan Pan and colleagues have created their own version of nanobees, which they hope will be even more effective.
They too have slowed or halted growth in breast and melanoma cancers. They’ve also discovered compounds in bee venom that can stop cancer stem cells.
Referring to stem cells, Dr. Pan commented, “That’s what we are interested in – 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.”
Making melittin pH sensitive
In recent years, many researchers have tested melittin to confirm it acts by attacking the cell membrane.
At low doses the effect doesn’t last long. At higher concentrations, the pores remain stable and stay open. At higher doses still, the cell membrane completely dissolves.
Lab studies show melittin can inhibit tumor cell proliferation and promote apoptosis in cancers of the breast, skin, bones, liver, lung, bladder, prostate, ovaries and in leukemia.
The potential for melittin is so great that Gregory Wiedman of Johns Hopkins University has been testing a novel way to deliver the bee peptide to cancer cells safely and effectively.
He has created a library of over 18,000 different melittin mutations from its sequence of 26 amino acids.
The idea is that because cancer cells have a lower pH (i.e. they’re more acidic) than blood, a form of melittin that is sensitive to this will, while retaining its cell-puncturing capability, be able to zero in on tumors while leaving normal cells alone.
Evaluating each mutation could take him quite some time.
Meanwhile there’s another type of sting that’s creating quite a buzz.
Wasp venom kills tumors, too
Not to be outdone by bees, wasps have also demonstrated their cancer killing potential.
While most of the 30,000 species of wasp are solitary and the majority don’t sting, there are a thousand species of social wasp that build colonies. In these, the females do sting.
One such social species, Polybia paulista from Brazil, produces a venom that contains a potent cancer-fighting compound called MP1. Like bee venom, this is able to puncture holes in tumors.
Previous lab research found it could inhibit the growth of bladder and prostate cells and was also successful with multi-drug-resistant leukemia.
But how it worked was a mystery. Now, researchers at the University of Brazil believe they have come up with the answer. It revolves around two fatty compounds found in healthy cell membranes.
These phospholipids are called phosphatidylserine (PS) and phosphatidylethanolamine (PE). Both are located on the inner membrane of a healthy cell.
But in cancer cells these two lipids are located on the outer surface of the membrane. This allows for a targeted therapy.
MP1 brings on cancer destruction in two stages.
First, PS increases the ability of MP1 to bind to the membrane by a factor of 7 to 8. This causes pores in the membrane to open and leak out its contents. Second, PE allows these holes to be 20 – 30 times larger than they would have been without it.
One of the research team, João Ruggiero Neto of São Paulo State University, Brazil, commented:
“Formed in only seconds, these large pores are big enough to allow critical molecules such as RNA and proteins to easily escape cells. The dramatic enhancement of the permeabilization induced by the peptide in the presence of PE and the dimensions of the pores in these membranes was surprising.”
Furthermore, MP1 was selective to cancer cells and non-toxic to normal cells in their experiments.
80 bee stings? Yikes!
It will take years of further lab work before human trials can begin on cancer patients.
In the meantime, if you want to avail yourself of Ms. Paltrow’s advice and get yourself stung for its other health benefits, beware!
Before you allow injections of the venom, or live bees placed on your skin to sting you, make sure you work with a fully qualified practitioner.
Depending on the health problem, the therapy may involve getting stung up to 80 times. One person out of 50 has an allergic reaction, which in rare cases can be severe and even fatal. It’s essential to undergo a test sting with epinephrine on standby in case this reaction, called anaphylactic shock, takes place.