Wasp Venom Used in Novel Approach Against Superbugs


Antibiotic resistance is a major public health issue. Each year, millions face antibiotic-resistant infections, and thousands lose their lives. Researchers from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania are tackling this challenge by developing new antimicrobial molecules from wasp venom.

New Discoveries in Wasp Venom

The venom from the Korean yellow-jacket wasp (Vespula lewisii) contains a peptide called mastoparan-L. Typically, this peptide can destroy red blood cells and cause severe inflammatory reactions. However, scientists have managed to modify this highly toxic small protein into a less harmful form called mastoparan-MO (mast-MO).

A Breakthrough in Antimicrobial Peptides

The scientists replaced a section of mastoparan-L, known to be toxic to human cells, with a pentapeptide motif found in a database of known antimicrobial peptides. This new peptide showed strong activity against bacteria while being much safer for human cells.

Testing and Results

Experiments conducted on mice infected with lethal levels of E. coli revealed promising results. Eighty percent of the mice treated with mast-MO survived, compared to much lower survival rates when treated with the natural mast-L peptide. This new molecule can be administered at higher doses without severe side effects.

Potential Applications

Venom-derived molecules could become a valuable source for new antibiotics. C├ęsar de la Fuente and his team at Penn believe these molecules can treat multidrug-resistant infections, including sepsis and tuberculosis. These insights could lead to new bacteria-killing drugs to combat antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Wider Implications and Future Directions

Animal venoms have long been overlooked in drug discovery. Yet, they possess unique properties that can be harnessed for therapeutic purposes. Wasp venom, scorpion venom, and snake venom have shown potential in treating HIV, cancer, diabetes, and other illnesses. The Perelman School of Medicine’s research highlights the broad applications of antimicrobial molecules derived from venom.

Molecular Engineering

To develop these powerful molecules, researchers focused on the amino acids in the peptide structure. They identified a cluster of hydrophobic and positively charged amino acids that enhance antimicrobial potency without being toxic to human cells. This systematic study involved altering the physicochemical properties of these molecules to improve their efficacy and safety.

Real-World Applications

This new class of antibiotics could address public health challenges posed by antibiotic-resistant infections. These molecules could serve as effective treatments for bacterial infections that no longer respond to traditional antibiotics. Additionally, they might be used in cases of sepsis, urinary tract infections, and tuberculosis.

Engineering Peptide Molecules

Further exploration into peptide variants could provide more insights. The researchers aim to develop other synthetic therapeutic candidates by applying the principles and approaches from their mast-MO study. By understanding the antimicrobial and immune-modulating properties of these peptide molecules, scientists can create new, effective treatments.

Collaboration and Funding

This groundbreaking research involved several institutions, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and funding from the Ramon Areces Foundation and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. Collaborators like Timothy Lu and Vani Oliveira contributed to these exciting discoveries.

Safety and Toxicity Concerns

The focus on minimizing toxicity to human cells is a key aspect of developing these new peptides. The altered peptides have shown lower toxicity levels in laboratory tests, making them safer for potential use in humans. Researchers continue to test these peptides to ensure they are non-toxic and effective.

Impact on Drug Development

By repurposing toxic small proteins into safe, effective antibiotics, scientists are opening new avenues in the fight against antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The molecules engineered by the Penn team could represent a significant advancement in developing new antibiotic drugs.


The ongoing work by the Perelman School of Medicine and their collaborators is a prime example of innovative approaches to tackle antibiotic resistance. Their research into wasp venom peptides offers a promising pathway to new treatments and highlights the potential of natural toxins in modern medicine. By continuing to explore the therapeutic potential of venom, researchers can develop novel solutions to some of today’s most pressing health challenges.

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