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Wasp Venom Targets Breast Cancer in New Therapy

Aug 05, 2014 03:57 PM EDT

Wasp venom may deliver a painful sting, but scientists from the Institute for Biomedical Research (IRB Barcelona) have carried out successful in vitro tests using the venom to kill breast cancer tumor cells, a new study describes. The next step will be to test its effectiveness in mouse models.

Most anti-tumor compounds are accompanied by a series of side effects and may even become resistant, but the IRB Barcelona team designed a new therapy based on a peptide - the binding of several amino acids - from wasp venom for its potential use against breast cancer.

"This peptide has the ability to form pores in the cell plasma membrane, penetrate into the cell and finally, cause its death, either by necrosis or by triggering apoptosis, programmed cell death," lead author Miguel Moreno explained to Sinc.

However, this "natural weapon" could not be directly used in the therapy due to its high toxicity and lack of cell specificity - meaning, it would not only attack tumor cells but healthy cells as well. So, the researchers came up with a way to deliver the venom to the tumor without causing harm to the body's healthy cells.

The system consists of a decorated carrier polymer with two components: a peptide that is bound to a tumor cell receptor and the cytotoxic peptide of the wasp venom.

In vitro experiments show that the substance successfully reaches and kills the tumor cells while leaving healthy cells, like red blood cells, alone.

Though the experiment is in its early stages and still has to undergo testing in mice, researchers are optimistic that these findings will be put toward anti-cancer therapy in the future.

Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - it claimed 575,000 lives in 2010.

And as this study shows, scientists are realizing that the future of medicine may depend on the innate powers of Mother Nature. Aside from wasps, other life forms may hold the key to better treatments for cancer, HIV, and many other diseases still baffling scientists.

"Mother Nature has been doing her chemistry over the last three billion years," David Newman, chief of the Natural Products Branch of the National Cancer Institute, told Business Insider. "She isn't making anti-tumor compounds," he explained, "but the same chemical that a sea sponge uses to fight predators might also be able to kill cancer cells or viruses."

While wasp venom may be useful in the fight against cancer, cone snail venom is now being used as a painkiller - one that's 50 times more potent than morphine - that eliminates phantom limb pain in amputees. Tunicates, marine invertebrates frequently found around coral reefs, provide anticancer and antiviral chemicals.

In addition, AZT, the first effective drug against AIDS, comes from a chemical produced in a lab, but the chemical was originally found in a Caribbean sea sponge.

According to the NOAA, almost half of the world's pharmaceuticals come from nature.

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