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Stinging tumors with scorpion and honeybee venom

When honeybees and scorpions sting, it is usually an act of defense — a painful one at that, thanks to the venom injected through the stingers. Scientists, however, may have found a way to co-opt those venoms as a means of defense for humans against cancerous tumors.

Peptides found in certain venoms have been successful in preventing tumors from both growing and spreading by binding to those cancer cells. The problem is, those same peptides don’t know how to discriminate cancerous cells from healthy ones — they attack both. Now, scientists at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign have developed a method to isolate and attack the cancerous tissue directly.

By placing a peptide from scorpion venom into polymeric nanoparticles — particles that can be measured in nanometers that can be targeted for delivery — the researchers found that the constructs effectively attacked cancer cells “with a potency nearly 10 times that of the toxin alone” while sparing healthy cells. In addition, applying the same delivery method for honeybee venom was found to be just as effective — killing breast cancer cells while leaving normal cells alone.

The scientists look to start live tests on rats and pigs for their next step, before advancing to human clinical trials in the next three to five years.