Could The Microbiome Be the Key to New Cancer Treatments?
There exist many types of cancer and treatments for some are the same. Whether you have breast cancer, prostate cancer, or cancer of the lymph nodes, chances are you’ll be getting radiation therapy. Not only are some of these treatments painful, they do not always work. What are we to do when our main tool is as effective as we hoped it was?
Current Cancer Treatments
Depending on the type of cancer a patient has, doctors may suggest either multiple treatments or the single one they think will work best. Here are a few ways that some patients are treated:
Surgery – if you’ve developed cancer that causes tumors, surgery may help solve the issue if the growth is determined to be the source of the cancer
Radiation Therapy – as the name suggests, radiation is used to treat cancer. Using X-rays or protons, doctors will target the cancer cells directly. Doctors may choose to either treat cancer with radiation by machine or brachytherapy, in which the radiation is placed inside your body.
Bone Marrow Transplant – using a very large needle, bone marrow (the source of blood stem cells) is extracted from a compatible donor and then placed into the cancer patient
Radiofrequency Ablation – using a special needle, doctor guide it through the parts of the body where cancer tissue exists, killing the cancer cells with an electrical pulse that heats and kills them
Immunotherapy – doctors treat cancer by boosting the body’s natural abilities to fight off cancer on its own, with limited assistance
Chemotherapy – it is the use of special chemicals to directly damage tumors in the body
While these have shown promise in the past, sometimes none of the treatments above are the answer for those affected by such a terrible disease.
As time progresses doctors are beginning to understand more about the cancers they are fighting, and a few studies may have possibly found the answers so many have been looking for.
Findings in Past Studies
Printed in 2013 in the publication Science, a study led by Dr. Romina Goldszmid and Dr. Giorgo Trinchieri examined two sets of mice: one treated with antibiotics for three weeks prior and the other simply raised in a germ-free environment from birth.
While the germ-free mice responded poorly to immunotherapy, they also responded positively to oxaliplatin and cisplatin, unlike the antibiotic-treated mice.
Another study led by Dr. Laurence Zitvogel showed that gut microbiota, which helped fight cancer, were affected by treating secondary infections caused by cancer:
“The use of antibiotics should be considered as an important element affecting the microbiota composition. It has been demonstrated, and our present study has confirmed, that after the antibiotic treatment the bacterial composition in the gut never returns to its initial composition,” states Dr. Trinchieri. “Thus, our findings raise the possibility that the frequent use of antibiotic during a patient’s lifetime or to treat infections related to cancer and its side effects may affect the success of anti-cancer therapy.”
Chemical engineer Stephanie Culler who sequences fecal samples at a startup division known as JLABS found interesting results during her work that re-inforced what Zitvogel’s study had found.
“When we looked at stool samples from breast and lung cancer patients, we discovered that important bacteria were missing from the microbiome,” shares Culler. The study found that the lack of Firmicutes bacteria in the gut might make cancer-fighting drugs less effective. “We believe that those bacteria are important for the immune system to be able to respond to those drugs.”
Culler, along with colleague Steve Van Dien established Persephone Biome in 2017 to look further into how cancer and gut bacteria relate. The goal is to target specific microbes during clinical trials and gauge the effectiveness of such treatments.
There will also be another trial using CAR-T cell therapy, which will treat cancer patients with genetically enhanced immune cells from their own body.
“Even healthy people might be missing these gut microbes, but cancer patients and people with compromised immune systems are more likely to be missing them,” states Culler. “We want to give them back.”
Jennifer Wargo, a professor at the University of Texas says, “We know that diet matters, but everyone wants to know what the secret sauce is to change the microbiome to respond better to cancer treatment. We simply don’t know that yet.”
How to Help
Culler stresses the importance of collecting stool samples to study this issue, from those with cancer to those without. “Hopefully there will be a day when collecting stool will be as routine as collecting blood. Until then, we need everyone to help out.”
Sign up to be part of Persephone Biome’s “Poop for the Cure”, and you’ll snag yourself a $50 Visa gift card for your sample.