Octopus Venom Found to Slow the Growth of Cancer

A potential new treatment for one of the most serious forms of skin cancer has been found in a rather unlikely place: octopus venom.

A team of researchers from Spain and Australia studying the venom of the Australian southern sand octopus has identified a compound that may significantly slow cancer growth and help fight drug resistance in patients with BRAF-mutated melanoma, one of the most serious forms of skin cancer.

The findings were published in the October issue of the British Journal of Pharmacology.

"We and other groups have previously discovered that other animals–snakes, spiders, bees–have anticancer properties," the study's lead author, Dr. Maria Ikonomopoulou of the Institute for Molecular Bioscience at the University of Queensland, told Newsweek. "However, in my current knowledge, the anticancer properties of an octopus species have never been studied or confirmed before."

Australian southern sand octopus
Photo of the Australian Southern sand octopus crawling along the seabed. The octopus's venom contains a compound that has been shown to slow cancer growth. DayDream TV/QIMR Berghofer MRI

BRAF is a gene that is involved in regulating cell growth. A mutation in this gene can cause it to malfunction, resulting in uncontrollable cell growth. These BRAF mutations are seen in half of all cases of melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer. They are involved in other forms of cancer including colorectal cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and certain brain cancers.

"Current standard of care for melanoma patients includes targeted approaches, i.e., the combination of BRAF or MEK inhibitors," Ikonomopoulou said. "Great outcomes have also been achieved with immunotherapy as well as combined immunotherapy. However, with these therapies, there are a few challenges including low response rates, toxicity and adverse effects, as well as drug resistance. "

According to the research, Ikonomopoulou's team tested the tumor-fighting properties of a group of synthetically produced venom compounds from a range of different marine animals.

"The octopus peptide stops the proliferation of BRAF-mutated melanoma," Ikonomopoulou said. "In addition, it is safe to be used at high doses–it is not toxic. Therefore, in combination with other FDA-approved melanoma drugs/management, treatments could potentially achieve better and safer patient outcomes."

cancer patient outcomes
Stock image of a cancer patient. A compound found in octopus venom could help improve the outcomes for people with cancer, per a recent study. KatarzynaBialasiewicz/Getty

The southern sand octopus can be found across the Great Australian Bight and Tasmania. It was discovered in 1990 and is the only octopus species known to bury itself deep in the sand to hide from predators.

"It is very unlikely that the octopus has specifically evolved its venom to contain anticancer peptides," said Ikonomopoulou. "However, the animal venom can contain over 1,000 unique compounds with a wide pharmacology such as anti-inflammatory, analgesic or anticancer.

"In this study, we have shown that the octopus peptide specifically targets melanoma of BRAF mutation, the most prominent melanoma mutation. The next step is to examine whether similar promising results are applicable for other BRAF-mutated cancers. For example, prostate, colon, and non-small cell lung."

Before this compound can be used on patients, the team will need to perform several rounds of lab testing and clinical trials.

"We still have a lot of preclinical and clinical assessments to do to understand how it works and its full potential as a drug candidate for melanoma," said Ikonomopoulou.

Update 10/31/2022 6:15 a.m. ET: This article was updated to add a new video and photo.