According to a recent study, bacteria living deep inside the digestive system seem to alter how cancer drugs work.
Immunotherapies – which harness the body’s own defenses to fight tumors – can clear even terminal cancer in a small proportion of patients.
However, a small study by the University of Texas found those harboring a more diverse community of gut bugs are more likely to benefit.
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.
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 tumors more easily.
The research group compared the gut bacteria in 23 patients who responded to the therapy and 11 who did not.
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-poo-sion – a transplant of fecal matter containing beneficial bacteria – are already used as a treatment for some diseases.
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.