The Link Between Honey Bees and Stem Cells
October 2019

Royal Jelly and Stem Cells

What do honey bees and stem cells have in common? Well, not a huge amount, unless you look at the gelatinous substance that honeybees make to feed their young – Royal Jelly. 

Royal Jelly is not only used to feed young honey bees, but it is also fed to the potential queen bees too, in order to help them develop into new queen bees – although how its consumption stimulates some larvae to develop into queen bees and not others, remains unknown.

But Royal Jelly isn’t the preserve of just the honeybee, no, you see, some people believe that Royal Jelly carries the key to eternal youth. 

Royal Jelly

Royal Jelly is made up of a combination of water, proteins and sugars and is routinely sold as a supplement to help treat a myriad of illnesses and health conditions. Whilst it has been widely used and accepted in traditional medicine, it is still considered controversial in Western modern medicine. 

Potential Benefits of Royal Jelly

The potential benefits of the consumption of Royal Jelly as a dietary supplement include (but aren’t limited to):

  • Ingestion of certain vitamins including: 
    • Thiamine
    • Riboflavin 
    • Pantothenic acid
    • Niacin (B3)
    • Folic acid (B9)
  • Anti-inflammatory – Royal Jelly is considered to be an anti-inflammatory and several studies have shown that Royal Jelly reduced the levels of pro-inflammatory chemicals that had been released by the immune system into the body. 
  • Lowers cholesterol – studies in both humans and animals have shown consumption of Royal Jelly to significantly lower cholesterol levels, thereby reducing the risk of heart disease, although the exact means by which it does this remain unclear. 
  • Supports tissue repair – when ingested orally and applied topically, Royal Jelly may enable wounds to heal and to repair inflammatory skin conditions. Royal Jelly is also known for its antibacterial properties, helping to keep wounds clean and clear of infection. One animal study revealed an increase in collagen production levels in rats when they were fed Royal Jelly, and a test tube study on human cells resulted in an increased ability to repair tissues.

Yes, many more studies and a lot more research is required before any findings into the benefits of Royal Jelly can be declared official, but the fact that these benefits have been observed for a millennia shouldn’t be overlooked by Western medical practitioners. 

Which brings us onto a recent study of Royal Jelly by researchers at Stanford University.

Recent studies into Royal Jelly

A team of researchers from the renowned Stanford University School of Medicine in California decided to investigate one aspect of Royal Jelly to determine how it might provide some tangible benefit for humans. And that study, the results of which were published in Nature Communications, looked at the effects of Royal Jelly on mammalian stem cells. 

The DNA sequencing of royalactin, the active component of Royal Jelly, was known to be unique to honeybees. But recent research has identified a structurally similar mammalian protein that could potentially maintain stem cells pluripotency. 

The draw of the honeybee for scientists researching stem cells should be obvious – all honeybee larvae start life in exactly the same way, but somehow, along the way, the odd one or two develop to become the new queen bee, just as embryonic stem cells can differentiate to become any cell in the human body.

In the Stanford study, led by Dr. Kevin Wang, the team focused on applying royalactin to embryonic stem cells they’d collected from mice. Dr. Wang and the team were aware that in order for the Royal Jelly to have an effect on the larvae’s development into queen bees, it had to be applied to early progenitor cells in the larvae. So they decided to see what affect, if any, it had when applied to embryonic stem cells. 

The fountain of youth

One of the major problems of researching stem cells is that under lab conditions, they quickly become unusable, and so to prolong the life of the stem cells, certain inhibitors have to be applied to maintain the stem cells’ pluripotency.

When the researchers introduced royalactin to the embryonic stem cells they were studying, they found that the pluripotency of the stem cells was maintained for up to 20 generations longer, without needing to apply any inhibitors. The Royal Jelly effectively blocked the differentiation of the stem cells. 

How and why this happened remains still a mystery, because by rights, the mammalian cells shouldn’t have reacted at all, seeing as mammals don’t produce the royalactin protein. Encouraged by their discovery, the researchers sought to find a mammalian equivalent of the royalactin protein that might match the shape of the royalactin protein and do the same job of preventing the differentiation of the stem cells.

And they did, identifying the protein NHLRC3 (now named Regina), which is present in all early animal embryos, including human embryos. On applying this protein to mouse embryonic stem cells, the researchers found that just like the royalactin, Regina helped the stem cells to maintain their pluripotency. 

The future of Regina

Regina’s potential use is great – with issues still surrounding the use of embryonic stem cells, being able to prolong the life span of the ones being used is a clear winner. So watch this space. If honey bees can keep stem cells ‘youthful’, who knows what else can be rejuvenated too…

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