Side effects of cancer treatments are almost as feared as the disease itself. But what if we could selectively destroy cancer cells without harming normal cells? Wasp venom might hold the secret to this largely awaited solution, as researchers from São Paulo State University and University of Leeds unraveled the mechanism of its cancer-targeting toxin.

Wasps might be scarier and less lovable than their close-relatives the bees. Despite this and their inability to produce honey, wasps might actually be more useful to humans than we initially realized… According to a new study performed by São Paulo State University and the University of Leeds, wasp venom could represent the basis of a whole new generation of anti-cancer treatments. The responsible is, in particular, the wasp Polybia paulista which produces Polybia-MP1, a host-defense peptide with known anticancer properties.

Although the exact mechanism isn’t yet clear, the bioactive MP-1 interacts with two phospholipids that are abnormally distributed in tumor cells. In particular, phosphatidylserine and phosphatidylethanolamine which, in healthy cells, are situated in the inner membrane layer. On the other hand, in cancer cells these phospholipids are located in the outer membrane layer, exposed to the extracellular surroundings.

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B0008542 Vespula vulgaris (common wasp) Credit: Annie Cavanagh. S: Wellcome Images

B0008542 Vespula vulgaris (common wasp)
Credit: Annie Cavanagh. S: Wellcome Images

The researchers created model membranes with one or both of the phospholipids and exposed them to the wasp peptide. By doing this they tested the destructive effect of the venom on the model tumor membranes. The authors of the study found out that the permeability of the model tumor membranes was rapidly increased, with large pores that allowed the escape of crucial molecules such as RNA or proteins. In vivo, this sort of leakage would result in cell death.

João Ruggiero and Paul Beales, co-authors of the paper published in Cell, ruled the Polybia-MP1 peptide as a clear candidate for the development of novel cancer therapies, especially in combination with other chemotherapeutics that have intracellular targets. The next step would be to genetically engineer the peptide in order to learn more about its mechanism, thus allowing us to increase its selectivity and effectiveness for clinical purposes.

After discovering what these unrecognized animals can offer to modern medicine, you might think twice next time you are about to kill a wasp out of annoyance.

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