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Wasp Venom Tears through Cancer Cells

Sep 02, 2015 04:12 PM EDT
Brazilian Wasp Polybia paulista
Venom from Brazilian social wasps called Polybia paulista, one of which is pictured here, attacks cancer cells.
(Photo : Prof. Mario Palma/Sao Paulo State University)

The venom from Brazilian social wasps not only defends the insect from its predators, but also has been found to contain a powerful cancer-fighting ingredient. This toxin, known as MP1 (Polybia-MP1), can selectively kill cancer cells, while not harming normal ones. A recent study published in Biophysical Journal explains how.

According to a news release, MP1 from this wasp species (Polybia paulista) interacts with abnormally distributed lipids on the surface of cancer cells, creating large holes. Molecules that are crucial for these cells to function can then leak out.

"Cancer therapies that attack the lipid composition of the cell membrane would be an entirely new class of anticancer drugs," Paul Beales, co-senior author of the study from the University of Leeds, said in the release. "This could be useful in developing new combination therapies, where multiple drugs are used simultaneously to treat a cancer by attacking different parts of the cancer cells at the same time."

Previously, scientists were unsure how MP1 was able to destroy cancer cells without harming normal ones. However, Beales and João Ruggiero Neto, co-senior author from São Paulo State University in Brazil, believed that it had something to do with phospholipids, called phosphatidylserine (PS) and phosphatidylethanolamine (PE), being located on the outer membrane leaflet facing the cell surroundings. This differs from normal cells, where PS and PE are generally embedded in the inner membrane leaflet facing the inside of the cell.

Using model membranes, the researchers were able to test this theory. They found that the presence of PE and PS did enhance MP1's effect. The researchers plan to study how this could be used for clinical purposes.

"Understanding the mechanism of action of this peptide will help in translational studies to further assess the potential for this peptide to be used in medicine," Beales explained. "As it has been shown to be selective to cancer cells and non-toxic to normal cells in the lab, this peptide has the potential to be safe, but further work would be required to prove that."

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