A New Era of Drug Discovery
Since the 1997 study, no one had looked further into bee venom as a potential cure for Lyme disease, until Ellie.
Ellie now runs a business selling bee-derived beauty products called BeeVinity, inspired after, she says, noticing how good her skin looked as she underwent apitherapy. “I thought, ‘Well, people aren’t going to want to get stung with bees just to look good.’”
Ellie has partnered with a bee farm that uses a special electrified glass plate to extract venom. As the bees walk across the plate on the way to and from their hive, harmless currents stimulate the bees to release venom from their abdomens, leaving teeny little droplets on the glass, which are later collected. Ellie says it takes 10,000 bees crossing that plate to get 1 gram of venom (other sources, such as the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, quote 1 million stings per gram of venom), but “those bees are not harmed”.
For her, it is more than just a way to make a living: it’s “an amazing blessing”. Proceeds from her creams and other products support bee preservation initiatives, as well as Lyme disease research. In addition, she sends some of the venom she purchases – which, due to the cost of the no-harm extraction method she uses, she says is “more expensive than gold” – to Eva Sapi, Associate Professor of Biology and Environmental Science at the University of New Haven, who studies Lyme disease.
Sapi’s research into the venom’s effects on Lyme bacteria is ongoing and as yet unpublished, though she told me the results from preliminary work done by one of her students look “very promising”. Borrelia bacteria can shift between different forms in the body, which is part of what makes them so hard to kill. Sapi has found that other antibiotics don’t actually kill the bacteria but just push them into another form that is more dormant. As soon as you stop the antibiotics, the Borrelia bounce back. Her lab is testing different bee venoms on all forms of the bacteria, and so far, the melittin venom seems effective.
The next step is to test whether melittin alone is responsible, or whether there are other important venom components. “We also want to see, using high-resolution images, what exactly happens when bee venom hits Borrelia,” Sapi told me.
She stresses that much more data is needed before any clinical use can be considered. “Before jumping into the human studies, I would like to see some animal studies,” she says. “It’s still a venom.” And they still don’t really know why the venom works for Ellie, not least because the exact cause of post-treatment Lyme disease symptoms remains unknown. “Is it effective for her because it’s killing Borrelia, or is it effective because it stimulates the immune system?” asks Sapi. It’s still a mystery.
There’s a long way to go for bee venom and melittin. And it takes a lot of work – and money – to turn a discovery into a safe, working medicine. But labs like King’s are starting to tap the pharmaceutical potential that lies in the full diversity of venomous species. And King, for one, believes that scientists are entering a new era of drug discovery.
In the past, venoms have been investigated because of their known effects on humans. Such investigations required both knowledge of the venom’s clinical effects and large volumes of venom, so until now only large species, like snakes, with easily extracted venoms have been studied in any depth. But that’s changing. Technological advances allow for more efficient venom extraction as well as new ways to study smaller amounts of venom. The preliminary tests for pharmaceuticals can now start with nothing more than a genetic sequence. “We can now genomically look at the toxins in these animals without having to actually even purify the venom,” says King, “and that changes everything.” Ken Winkel thinks venomous animals will be excellent drug resources for devastating neurological diseases, as so many of their venoms target our nervous system. “We really don’t have great drugs in this area,” he says, “and we have these little factories that have a plethora of compounds…”
No one knows exactly how many venomous species there are on this planet. There are venomous jellyfish, venomous snails, venomous insects, even venomous primates. With that, however, comes a race against time of our own making. Species are going extinct every year, and up to a third may go extinct from climate change alone.
“When people ask me what’s the best way to convince people to preserve nature, your weakest argument is to talk about how beautiful and wonderful it is,” says Bryan Fry. Instead, he says, we need to emphasize the untapped potential that these species represent. “It’s a resource, it’s money. So conservation through commercialization is really the only sane approach.”
Ellie couldn’t agree more. “We need to do a lot more research on these venoms,” she tells me emphatically, “and really take a look at what’s in nature that’s going to help us.”
This story first appeared on Mosaic and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.