They have devised a method for targeting venom proteins specifically to malignant cells while sparing healthy ones that reduces or eliminates side effects that the toxins would otherwise cause.
"We have safely used venom toxins in tiny nanometer-sized particles to treat breast cancer and melanoma cells in the laboratory," said Dipanjan Pan from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
These particles, which are camouflaged from the immune system, take the toxin directly to the cancer cells, sparing normal tissue, he added.
Venom from snakes, bees and scorpions contains proteins and peptides which, when separated from the other components and tested individually, can attach to cancer cell membranes.
According to Pan, some of substances found in any of these venoms could be effective anti-tumour agents.
But just injecting venoms into a patient would have side effects.
So Pan and his team set out to solve this problem.
In the honeybee study, his team identified a substance in the venom called melittin that keeps the cancer cells from multiplying.
They synthesised melittin in the lab and conducted computational studies.
Next, they did the test and injected their synthetic toxin into nanoparticles.
"The peptide toxins we made are so tightly packed within the nanoparticle that they do not leach out when exposed to the bloodstream and cause side effects," Pan explained.
What they do is go directly to the tumour where they bind to cancer stem cells, blocking their growth and spread.
The synthetic peptides mimicking components from other venoms, such as those from snakes or scorpions, also work well in the nanoparticles as a possible cancer therapy, researchers noticed
The report was part of the ongoing 248th national meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS), the world's largest scientific society, in San Francisco.