University researchers develop cancer-fighting drug with venom

By Meghan Webber

In a report presented at the 248th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society, scientists from the University revealed that venom from bees, scorpions and snakes could act as a cancer-fighting drug. The drug, however, has not yet been tested for human use.

Dr. Dipanjan Pan, assistant professor in Bioengineering, conceptualized the research and developed experimental plans for the study alongside several colleagues in the department, including Dr. Santosh K. Misra, Dr. Mao Ye and Sumin Kim.

According to Pan, the healing potential of venom is well-known and has been explored by ancient civilizations for medical conditions like arthritis and neurological disorders, but there was no known method of delivering the venom safely into the body.

“(The venom’s) potency is remarkable, however, a controlled and specific delivery mechanism is sought to sustain the release of the venomous molecules and evade the systemic toxicity,” Pan said. “Based on this unmet need, we introduced a concept of delivering a nano-recipe of scorpion venom for breast cancer regression.”

That nano-recipe is called NanoVenin and is a clean scorpion venom created by the researchers, said Ye, a member of the Pan Research Group at Illinois. The modified venom is encapsulated in nanoparticles, and when testing the toxin in the lab, the researchers found that it had no negative effects on normal blood cells, but killed the cancer cells.

“Computationally we confirm that these venom toxins will be stably put inside the particles followed by a detailed biophysical characterization to confirm their stability,” Pan said. “Also, the venoms are nested inside the polymer shell, making them invisible for the immune system.”

With this method, the toxin can be delivered safely through the body without causing harm to healthy cells.

One of the more difficult aspects of the study, Misra said, is that there are very few pathways for toxins to travel throughout the body and thus be effective.

Misra said the most fulfilling part of the study was developing a strategy that was both safe for blood cells and did not cause unwanted immune responses.

This innovative cancer-fighting drug has not yet been tested on humans.

“It has been tested in lab-grown monolayers of breast cancer cells and studies are underway to test them in preclinical models,” Ye said.

Pan anticipates the beginning of human trials in about five years.

Meghan can be reached at [email protected]