A sting to cure cancer

The cure for cancer may lie in the venom of Brazilian wasp Polybia paulista. In laboratory tests, it was successful in suppressing the growth of prostate and bladder cancer cells as well as drug-resistant leukaemia cells.

This is just another reason why we need to preserve biodiversity, which include moral and aesthetic reasons, but one overlooked reason includes the actual and potential material benefits to people. Over 100 prescription drugs sold worldwide come from plant-derived sources and 25% of western pharmaceuticals are derived from rainforest ingredients. Yet, less than 1% of these tropical trees and plants have been tested by scientists. The latest “reason” to preserve comes from this Brazilian wasp.

The poison of this wasp, known as MP1, targets a certain component of a cancer cell: lipids. The toxin binds to the lipids embedded in the outside of cancer cell membranes. When it does this, it ruins the membrane structure of the cell and essential molecules, such as RNA and proteins, can leak out of the membrane through pores.

This toxin cannot affect healthy cells as it does cancer cells because of a difference in the placement of lipids in the cell membrane. In normal cells, the lipids are protected because they are located in the inner part of the membrane. Thus, the venom cannot bind to the lipids and destroy the cell.

wasp nest
Does the cure for cancer live in this nest? I do not want to be the one who knocks first.

This natural toxin holds exciting possibilities for medicine. A researcher from Leeds University, Dr. Paul Beales, said that therapies that “attack the lipid composition of the cell membrane would be an entirely new class of anti-cancer drug.” Although researchers seem to have made a breakthrough, they still have further work to determine its safety and ability of treating cancer.  If you enjoy wasps, we have a framed wasp for sale. (Natalie Gilmore/Kevin Clarke)

main photo: Prof Mario Palma/Sao Paulo State University