How Wasp Venom Kills Cancer Cells

How Wasp Venom Kills Cancer Cells

By Admin at 18 Apr 2016, 13:33 PM

Toxins in wasp venom could be used to create an entirely new class of anti-cancer drugs, according to researchers from the University of Leeds in the U.K. The wasp, Polybia paulista, wards off predators by injecting them with venom rich in Polybia-MP1 (MP1), a toxin with known anti-cancer properties.

MP1 kills cancer cells by attacking the lipid composition of cell membranes, creating holes that allow molecules necessary for cellular function to leak out. MP1 is known to inhibit the growth of prostate and bladder cancer cells, and even shows promise against multi-drug resistant leukemic cells—all without harming healthy cells.

It’s been a mystery how MP1 targeted cancer cells only, but the new study revealed it’s likely due to the unique location of phospholipids in cancer cell membranes.

Phosphatidylserine (PS) and phosphatidylethanolamine (PE)—two phospholipids—are located in the inner membrane leaflet facing in in normal cell membranes. In cancer cells, PS and PE are located in the outer membrane leaflet facing out. According to the study:

“PS and PE lipids synergistically combine to enhance membrane poration by MP1, implying that the combined enrichment of both these lipids in the outer leaflet of cancer cells is highly significant for MP1's anticancer action.”

For the study, the researchers created model membranes and exposed them to MP1. PS in the outer membrane increased the binding of MP1 to the membrane by 7- to 8-fold.

Meanwhile, the presence of PE enhanced MP1’s ability to disrupt the membrane and increased the size of holes created by 20- to 30-fold. Study author João Ruggiero Neto of São Paulo State University in Brazil told Science Daily:

"Formed in only seconds, these large pores are big enough to allow critical molecules such as RNA and proteins to easily escape cells … The dramatic enhancement of the permeabilization induced by the peptide in the presence of PE and the dimensions of the pores in these membranes was surprising."


MP1 appears to be safe and to selectively target cancer cells while leaving healthy cells unharmed, but more research is needed before the treatment is tested in humans. However the researchers envision the substance being used as part of newer combination therapies designed to attack different parts of cancer cells simultaneously.

Wasp venom is only one type of venom being used to treat disease. So far only about 1,000 venom toxins have been studied, resulting in a handful of medications that are currently on the market. It’s a long process, as each venom may contain up to 100 toxins, each of which targets specific receptors on human cells.

Gateway-Funded Clinical Trial Uses Scorpion Venom to Improve Quality of Life and Outcomes in Pediatric Brain Cancer

It’s thought that new cancer treatments resulting from venom could be available within a decade. Venom is also being used for other cancer therapies; for instance, in a Gateway-funded clinical trial, venom from the deathstalker scorpion is being studied to help locate pediatric brain tumors during surgery. Learn more in the video below. 

Tumor Paint for Pediatric Brain Cancer



Biophysical Journal September 1, 2015
Science Daily September 1, 2015
CNN September 15, 2015
National Geographic February 2015

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