Octopus compound could fight melanoma

27 October 2022

An international study has found promising early evidence that a compound identified in the venom of an Australian octopus may significantly slow cancer growth and help fight drug resistance in patients with one of the most serious forms of melanoma.

The findings suggest that the octopus compound or peptide, could potentially provide the foundation for a highly-targeted, less toxic treatment against BRAF-mutated melanoma, which accounts for about half of all melanoma cases.

The pre-clinical study was led by Dr Maria Ikonomopoulou, who started the project while at QIMR Berghofer, with collaborators from The University of Queensland, James Cook University, the University of Sydney, University of Santiago de Compostela and the Madrid Institute for Advanced Studies in Food.

Dr Ikonomopoulou’s team tested the tumour-fighting properties of a range of synthetically reproduced venom compounds which had previously been identified by University of Queensland research.

“We looked at venom compounds derived from various marine animals, but it was specifically the peptide from the Australian southern sand octopus that stood out for its ability to safely and effectively target BRAF-mutated melanoma cells in pre-clinical models,” she said.

“We were very surprised to discover the octopus venom peptide selectively reduced the proliferation of melanoma cells and prevented tumour progression, while having little effect on healthy cells. This specificity is really important as existing treatments can be quite toxic on healthy cells and have nasty side effects, limiting the quantities that patients are able to take.

“It’s still very early days. But these findings offer hope that this octopus peptide may be developed into a cancer-targeted treatment that can safely and effectively be administered even in very high doses.”

The Australian southern sand octopus. Credit: DayDreamTV

Roughly 50 per cent of all melanomas harbor a BRAF mutation, which is associated with cancer metastasis and poor prognosis.

Dr Ikonomopoulou said that while BRAF inhibitors and other targeted therapies have delivered unprecedented outcomes for some patients, they’re not suitable for everyone and there’s an urgent need for more options.

“A lot of patients don’t respond to existing treatments for BRAF-mutated melanoma. While targeted therapies and immunotherapy have improved outcomes, ongoing issues with drug toxicity and resistance hinder their overall success against the cancer,” Dr Ikonomopoulou said.

“While much more research is needed, our study shows this octopus venom compound has strong therapeutic potential.

“Its lack of toxicity gives us hope that the compound may one day be used in combination with immunotherapy and other treatments to attack the cancer in a different way. This could help tackle drug resistance and give any treatment greater effect.”

The study was able to identify the active part of the octopus peptide and the part which appears to influence specificity in targeting cancer cells. Dr Ikonomopoulou said this information may help them make an even more powerful form of the compound for the potential treatment of BRAF-mutated melanoma.

The researchers also want to investigate whether the compound has potential against other BRAF-mutated cancers, including those of the prostate, colon and non-small cell lung.

The study, published in the British Journal of Pharmacology, is not Dr Ikonomopoulou’s first to explore the treatment potential of animal venom compounds against cancer.

Previous studies she led alongside Dr Manuel A. Fernandez-Rojo found that an Australian funnel-web spider compound is highly effective at killing melanoma cells, as well as cells taken from facial tumours on Tasmania devils.

After launching this latest research at QIMR Berghofer, Dr Ikonomopoulou is now based at the Madrid Institute for Advanced Studies in Food.


Jodie Stephens
T +617 3362 3280
M +614 2717 9216