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Bee, Scorpion and Snake Venom May be the Cure to Cancer [VIDEO]

Aug 12, 2014 02:39 PM EDT

Bee, snake or scorpion venom could lead the way towards the next generation of cancer-fighting drugs, scientists reported at the American Chemical Society (ACS) conference this week.

Dipanjan Pan led a team from the University of Illinois in devising a method for targeting venom proteins specifically to cancer cells, while leaving healthy cells unharmed and circumventing 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," Pan said in an ACS news release. "These particles, which are camouflaged from the immune system, take the toxin directly to the cancer cells, sparing normal tissue."

The work is still in its early stages, but its success so far provides hope for a cancer cure in the near future.

CNN reports that in ancient times, doctors used venom to treat ailments for years. In 14 BC, the Greek writer Pliny the Elder described the use of bee venom as a cure for baldness, and in the 700s doctors used beestings to treat the Emperor Charlemagne's gout. Traditional Chinese medicine even used venom from poisonous frogs to fight liver, lung, colon and pancreatic cancers, and some Cuban doctors believe scorpion venom can fight brain tumors.

However, this new technique is slightly more complicated than simply injecting venom into a patient's bloodstream. Some nasty side effects include damage to the heart and nerve cells, clotting and bleeding under the skin.

The properties in venom that destroy cancer cells can have the same effect on healthy cells, but scientists aimed to control this potency by separating out the important proteins and peptides in the venom. Pan's lab found a way to synthesize these helpful cells, specifically the toxin melittin in honeybees.

"Since it's synthetic, there's no ambiguity" in what the substance contains, Pan told CNN.

Using nanotechnology, the research team delivered the synthetic material to the cancer cells, effectively camouflaging the toxin in the nanoparticle so it would bypass healthy cells.

"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 in the news release.

Unlike chemotherapy, this targeted technique, in theory, would attack cancer cells only, and may become the leading agent in the fight against cancer.

"If we can target better using this technique, we potentially have a better cancer treatment," Pan added.

Next, Pan's lab will try the new treatment approach in rats and pigs, hopefully evolving to patients in the next three to five years.

[Credit: American Chemical Society]

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