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Bees -- Latest Weapon In Cancer Fight

March 4, 1999
CSIRO Australia
Scientists at CSIRO in Australia are modifying bee venom to develop cancer treatments that should have fewer side effects than other drugs used to fight the disease.

The sting of a bee may soon be used to kill cancer cells.

Scientists at CSIRO Molecular Science are modifying bee venom to develop cancer treatments that should have fewer side effects than other drugs used to fight the disease.

A research project to utilise an active ingredient from bee venom as a potential cure for cancer has been funded by a $670,000 grant from the Commonwealth Government's Industry Research and Development Board. Participants in the project, CSIRO, the Oncology Research Centre at the Prince of Wales Hospital (POWH) and CSL, will contribute further funds towards the $1.3 million project.

The venom in the bee sting contains a number of active ingredients, the main one being mellitin, a molecule that kills cells by slicing through the cell walls, destroying the cells.

"What we have done is to modify the structure of the mellitin molecule to remove the part that causes the allergic reaction while still maintaining its ability to kill cells," CSIRO scientists Dr Werkmeister and Dr Hewish say.

One problem the researchers have to get around is targeting the killing activity of mellitin to cancer cells only and not to normal healthy cells. They plan to achieve this by attaching the modified mellitin to an antibody molecule that specifically recognises cancer cells. This combination of a toxin and an antibody is known as an immunotoxin.

The research team at CSIRO and POWH aims to produce immunotoxins as new cancer drugs that can attack a wide range of cancer cells. This approach should overcome the major drawbacks of chemotherapy treatment.

"Chemotherapy drugs are not specific; they attack normal cells thereby causing unwanted side effects such as hair loss, vomiting and weight loss. Such symptoms limit the amount of drug that can be administered and hence its effectiveness," Dr Hewish says.

The concept of using molecules such as immunotoxins as “magic bullets” for cancer treatment is not new and scientists have created a number of immunotoxin drugs with toxins derived from plants and bacteria. These immunotoxins, however, are extremely toxic and produce a number of serious side effects that limit their clinical application.

Dr Werkmeister points out that mellitin is far less toxic than the plant and bacterial toxins used in earlier work and thus new immunotoxin drugs from it may reduce potential side effects while still retaining the specific killing of target cancers.

“This is a fantastic opportunity to take some fundamental research observations and develop them into a potential drug to treat a major disease, such as cancer. It is especially pleasing to see an Australian innovation being supported by companies such as CSL Limited and the IR&D Board,” said Dr Simon Carroll, the divisional commercial development manager.

"We still have a fairly long way to go with this research. We are still some time from clinical application, but we are very optimistic," Dr Werkmeister concludes.

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The above post is reprinted from materials provided by CSIRO Australia. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

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CSIRO Australia. "Bees -- Latest Weapon In Cancer Fight." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 4 March 1999. <>.
CSIRO Australia. (1999, March 4). Bees -- Latest Weapon In Cancer Fight. ScienceDaily. Retrieved December 1, 2015 from
CSIRO Australia. "Bees -- Latest Weapon In Cancer Fight." ScienceDaily. (accessed December 1, 2015).

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