Can insect venom be harnessed to fight cancer?

University of Illinois bioengineering professor Dipanjan Pan

Bees give us honey, painful stings--and cancer-fighting drugs, if scientists can figure out how to extract and deliver the venom's cancer-fighting compounds. University of Illinois bioengineering professor Dipanjan Pan says he has developed nanoparticles that can carry insect toxins directly to tumors, sparing the rest of the body from nasty side effects, including damage to the heart, bleeding underneath the skin and unwanted clotting.

"We have safely used venom toxins in tiny nanometer-sized particles to treat breast cancer and melanoma cells in the laboratory," Pan said in American Chemical Society news release. "These particles, which are camouflaged from the immune system, take the toxin directly to the cancer cells, sparing normal tissue."

In particular, Pan's team injected the anticancer compound melittin (naturally found in honeybee venom, but lab-made for the experiment) into the nanoparticles and was pleased with the results. "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 said in the news release.

Researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis are also interested in melittin and have developed nanoparticles of their own to deploy the toxin against HIV, with hopes of creating a vaginal gel to prevent infection.

Pan said other synthetic compounds based on snake or scorpion venom could also be delivered using the nanoparticles. Next his team will test the delivery method in rats and pigs, with human trials possible in another three to 5 years.

Pan's research is featured at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society from Aug. 9 to 13 in San Francisco.

- read the news release and/or watch the YouTube video