Lab News & Events February 5, 2021
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A WA discovery made global news when venom from honeybees was found to kill aggressive breast cancer cells.

Associate Professor and Wesfarmers Fellow, Dr Pilar Blancafort, from the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research, co-published these findings with her PhD student Dr Ciara Duffy and laboratory co-workers a few months ago.

Their results revealed that honeybee venom rapidly destroyed triple-negative breast cancer and HER2-enriched breast cancer cells.

Dr Blancafort says this discovery was inspired by nature.

“In discovery-based research, we go to mother nature to understand what it does. This is the importance of the biomedical research that we do in our laboratory – we take something that exists in nature and apply it to target hard-to-treat cancers and other diseases,” says Dr Blancafort.

Dr Blancafort believes you should travel the world and place yourself in uncomfortable situations to free yourself up to discover new things. She feels that this is the essence of discovery.

“You truly start from scratch in discovery research with no precedent, so there is an inherent risk – but you have to try in order to reach the impact needed to solve biological problems, such as those in cancer biology. I have always learned so much from moving away from the same place, to explore the world, and free myself to think in other directions. The answer is there, somewhere,” says Dr Blancafort.

No-one had previously compared the effects of a small peptide named melittin, found in the honeybee venom, across the different subtypes of breast cancer and normal cells. Dr Duffy, under Dr Blancafort’s supervision, tested the venom on normal breast cells and found that it was extremely potent.

“We found that melittin can completely destroy cancer cell membranes within 60 minutes and substantially reduced the chemical messages of cancer cells that are essential to growth and cell division,” says Dr Blancafort.

The team is also keen to investigate melittin’s applicability to other diseases such as ovarian cancer.

While it’s early days, the laboratory work is deemed significant – suggesting melittin might help develop better-targeted treatment for breast and other cancers. However, it’s a long process from bench to bedside with numerous steps over several years required before development of commercial treatments can occur.

“The next steps require a multidisciplinary collaboration and a significant investment of resources,” says Dr Blancafort.

“We are grateful for our community of loyal supporters. They’re crucial because they support the early discovery part of the research and donate to the ongoing exploration.

“We need funding to help take our research from where we are now to where we want to be. We’re curious and willing to take the risk, and looking forward to collaborating with others who value the impact we can make in the community.

Professor Peter Leedman, Director of Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research and 2021 recipient of an Officer of the Order of Australia says, “This is an incredibly exciting observation that melittin can suppress the growth of deadly breast cancer cells.

“Triple-negative breast cancer and other hard-to-treat cancers are a major focus for researchers at the Perkins.

“We thank all our supporters in the WA community who make our research possible.”

The Perkins Walk for Women’s Cancer will take place Saturday 29 May. 100 percent of funds stay in WA and go back to the Perkins Institute to support women’s cancer research. You can help Pilar to continue her research by signing up to walk at walkforwomenscancer.org.au