Wasp venom could treat breast cancer

Most of us spend summer trying to avoid wasps, but a group of Spanish scientists has been studying them instead. And they’ve found that as well as being annoyingly buzzy and prone to stinging people, they could actually help to treat cancer.

Researchers from the Institute for Biomedical Research in Barcelona have come up with a new treatment option for breast cancer based on a peptide (a tiny group of amino acids) taken from wasp venom. (I don’t know how they extracted it, and I won’t be investigating.)

As Science Daily reports, this peptide can poke holes into cell membranes before penetrating cancer cells and killing them off. Used in its natural form, however, the venom is of course highly toxic – and can’t be relied on to go to the right cells.

So the scientists designed a way to attach the wasp venom peptide to a tumour cell receptor, which allowed it to penetrate the cancer cells while leaving healthy cells alone. This is an important breakthrough because most current treatments aren’t targeted only at cancer cells so they also damage healthy cells, causing serious side effects.

The technique is some way off being trialled in humans, but it was successful in lab tests on cancer cells, so the study’s authors are hopeful their technique could become widespread, either complementing or perhaps eventually replacing conventional treatment.

I never thought I’d say this, but sounds like we’re going to need a lot more wasps.

Image via Louise Docker’s Flickr.

Diane Shipley