Gut bac­te­ria ‘may help drugs fight can­cer’

Malta Independent - - HEALTH -

Bac­te­ria liv­ing deep in­side the di­ges­tive sys­tem seem to al­ter how can­cer drugs work, a study sug­gests.

Im­munother­a­pies - which har­ness the body’s own de­fences to fight tumours - can clear even ter­mi­nal can­cer in a small pro­por­tion of pa­tients.

How­ever, a small study by the Univer­sity of Texas found those har­bour­ing a more di­verse com­mu­nity of gut bugs are more likely to ben­e­fit.

Can­cer Re­search UK said un­der­stand­ing gut bugs had “great po­ten­tial”.

The hu­man body is home to tril­lions of mi­cro-or­gan­isms - es­ti­mates sug­gest our own tis­sues are so heav­ily out­num­bered that our bod­ies are just 10% hu­man.

And a grow­ing wealth of stud­ies shows these mi­crobes can in­flu­ence our im­mune sys­tems and have been im­pli­cated in auto-im­mune dis­eases and al­ler­gies.

Im­munother­a­pies are one of the most ex­cit­ing break­throughs in treating can­cer. They work by tak­ing the brakes off the im­mune sys­tem to help it to at­tack tumours more eas­ily.

The re­search group com­pared the gut bac­te­ria in 23 pa­tients who re­sponded to the ther­apy and 11 who did not.

Dr Jen­nifer Wargo, a melanoma sur­geon and sci­en­tist, told the BBC News web­site: “We found a night-and-day dif­fer­ence in the di­ver­sity of bac­te­ria species in the fae­cal sam­ples.”

The study, pre­sented at the Na­tional Can­cer Re­search In­sti­tute’s Can­cer Con­fer­ence in Liver­pool, found Ru­minococ­cus bac­te­ria in much higher lev­els in those that re­sponded to treat­ment.

It sug­gests that it may be pos­si­ble to boost the ef­fec­tive­ness of im­munother­apy by al­ter­ing the bal­ance of bac­te­ria in the gut.

Pro­ce­dures such as a trans-poo­sion - a trans­plant of fae­cal mat­ter con­tain­ing ben­e­fi­cial bac­te­ria are al­ready used as a treat­ment for some dis­eases.

Dr Wargo added: “It is hugely plau­si­ble I think - we still need to dig a lit­tle deeper, but I think we’re on to some­thing.

“I think it re­ally does shape our body’s im­mune re­sponse as a whole and to can­cer.”

It is not yet clear if the dif­fer­ences in bac­te­ria are the cause of the bet­ter re­sponse.

Peo­ple with di­ets con­tain­ing more fruit and veg­eta­bles tend to have a richer set of gut bugs, so it is pos­si­ble that it is those with a health­ier life­style that re­spond bet­ter to ther­apy.

“It might point to a healthy diet in­creas­ing your chances, which I think would be a great mes­sage,” she added.

Sir Harpal Ku­mar, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Can­cer Re­search UK, said: “Our bod­ies are filled with tril­lions of bac­te­ria, and we are just be­gin­ning to scratch the sur­face of un­der­stand­ing their great po­ten­tial.

“It’s re­ally in­ter­est­ing and ex­cit­ing to see new ev­i­dence emerge on the close con­nec­tion be­tween the im­mune sys­tem and the bac­te­ria liv­ing in our guts. As this, and sev­eral other stud­ies, have shown, ma­nip­u­lat­ing these bac­te­ria could be ex­ploited in fu­ture to help pa­tients re­spond bet­ter to treat­ment.”

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