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Brazilian Beehives May Help Give Cancer the Sting

swarm of honeybees on honeycomb
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Don’t go booking your ticket just yet because the results are from lab tests only, but scientists have identified two compounds found in beehives along Brazil’s northeast coast and mangrove forests that significantly thwarted the growth of ovarian, breast, and brain cancer cells.

Bee Glue

The compounds were isolated from a substance known as red propolis, a rare form of the “bee glue” that is used by the insects to patch holes in the hive as well as for keeping the hive’s interior chambers sanitized. It is made from a combination of bee saliva and plant sap and has already shown various health benefits. According to one study: “Propolis and its extracts have numerous applications in treating various diseases due to its antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antibacterial, antimycotic, antifungal, antiulcer, anticancer, and immunomodulatory properties.”

This study, which has been reported in the Journal of Natural Products, isolated a total of eight compounds known as polyphenols from the red propolis produced by the Brazilian bees, all of which have been previously unknown. Polyphenols are antioxidant-rich micronutrients derived from plants, including, for example, flavonoids and tannins, which are found in tea and wine.

“Bees produce propolis to protect the hive, so it’s no accident that the resin is bactericidal and antifungal,” said Roberto Berlinck, a professor at the University of São Paulo’s São Carlos Institute of Chemistry. “This had been reported previously by researchers who analyzed raw red propolis. In our study, we proved the anticancer effects of specific substances isolated from red propolis.”

Better Than Drugs

Red propolis is formed because bees use the resin formed by a local tree known as the coin vine, and is the rarest kind of propolis.

In in vitro tests, the researchers say two of the flavonoids they isolated outperformed the chemotherapy drug doxorubicin in beating back cancer. This is significant because ovarian, breast, and brain cancers are typically drug-resistant and hard to eliminate with traditional chemotherapy.

“The cells in question have a well-known mechanism that overexpresses a protein responsible for barring drugs,” said Berlinck. “This is why they’re drug-resistant. Our tests showed that the substances in red propolis circumvented the mechanism, showing their potential to reduce tumors.”

In continuing research, Berlinck says that he and his team will now investigate whether the sap from the coin vine has the anticancer properties itself, or if the bees alter it somehow when converting it to propolis.