Researchers use 'nanobees' to attack, prevent cancer

Nanoparticles effectively deliver cancer-killing bee venom to tumor cells

Scientists at the Washington University School of Medicine are creating "nanobees" to fight cancerous tumors.

Scientists at the St. Louis medical school announced this week that they are using nanoparticles to deliver the bee venom melittin through the body to kill cancerous tumor cells. In an experiment with mice, the nanobees targeted the tumors and effectively stopped them from growing, and even shrank them in some cases.

The university also reported that while the melittin-carrying nanoparticles can slow or even shrink some tumors, they also may be able to act at early stages to prevent cancer from even developing.

"The nanobees fly in, land on the surface of cells and deposit their cargo of melittin, which rapidly merges with the target cells," says Dr. Samuel Wickline, who heads the Siteman Center of Cancer Nanotechnology Excellence at Washington University. "We've shown that the bee toxin gets taken into the cells, where it pokes holes in their internal structures."

Nanotechnology has been playing an increasingly big role in battling cancer and other diseases.

Earlier this month, researchers at MIT announced that they have killed ovarian tumors in mice using nanoparticles that deliver killer genes to the cancer cells. According to MIT, the findings could lead to a new treatment for ovarian cancer.

And in May, MIT scientists announced that they had developed gold nanoparticles that can target tumors and heat them, with minimal side effects to nearby healthy cells. The researchers said tumors in mice that received the gold nanorod treatment disappeared within 15 days. The cancer did not recur for the duration of the three-month study.

This news comes just months after MIT announced that a group of scientists had developed nanotechnology that can be placed inside living cells to determine whether chemotherapy drugs used to treat cancer are reaching their targets or attacking healthy cells. The researchers wrapped the carbon nanotubes in DNA so they could be safely injected into living tissue.

In the Washington University study, researchers tested the nanotube/melittin treatment on mice with breast tumors and with melanoma. The university reported that after four to five injections of the melittin-carrying nanoparticles over several days, growth of the tumors slowed by nearly 25%, and the size of the mice's melanoma tumors decreased by 88% compared with untreated tumors.

Melittin is a small protein that is strongly attracted to cell membranes. Once it reaches the membrane, it can open up pores and break up the cells.

"Nanobees are an effective way to package the useful, but potentially deadly, melittin, sequestering it so that it neither harms normal cells nor gets degraded before it reaches its target," said Paul Schlesinger, a medical doctor and associate professor of cell biology and physiology, in a statement.

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