Venom gets good buzz as potential cancer-fighter

08/11/2014 - 11:15am

San Francisco, Aug. 11, 2014 — Bee, snake or scorpion venom could form the basis of a new generation of cancer-fighting drugs, scientists from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign report. They 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 otherwise would cause.

The report was presented during the 248th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS), the world’s largest scientific society. Attended by thousands of scientists, the meeting runs August 11 through 14 and features nearly 12,000 reports on new advances in science and other topics.

“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.”

[Also see CNN report on Dr. Pan's venom research: go.bioengineering.illinois.edu/venom_report_cnn
And CBS report: www.cbsnews.com/news/buzz-over-bee-venom-in-cancer-research/]

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, an assistant professor in the Department of Bioengineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and his team say that some of substances found in any of these venoms could be effective anti-tumor agents. But just injecting venoms into a patient would have side effects. Among these could be damage to heart muscle or nerve cells, unwanted clotting or, alternately, bleeding under the skin. So Pan and his team at Illinois set out to solve this problem.

He says that in the honeybee study, his team identified 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 separate out the substance time after time for lab testing or for later clinical use. That’s why they synthesized melittin in the lab. To figure out how melittin would work inside a nanoparticle, they conducted computational studies. Next, they did the test and 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,” he explains. What they do is go directly to the tumor, where they bind to cancer stem cells, blocking their growth and spread, he adds. He says that synthetic peptides mimicking components from other venoms, such as those from snakes or scorpions, also work well in the nanoparticles as a possible cancer therapy.

Pan says the next step is to examine the new treatment approach in rats and pigs. Eventually, they hope to begin a study involving patients. He estimates that this should be in the next three to five years.

The researchers acknowledge funding from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The American Chemical Society is a nonprofit organization chartered by the U.S. Congress. With main offices in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio, and more than 161,000 members, ACS is the world’s largest scientific society and a global leader in providing access to chemistry-related research through its multiple databases, peer-reviewed journals and scientific conferences.

Paper published by the Royal Society of Chemistry