Bacteria may be key to cancer treatment

Cancer may be controllable with a compound secreted by bacterial communication systems, according to a new MU study.

Normally, people consider bacteria a bad thing, but it could be the key to a new innovative cancer treatment.

Cancer usually becomes a threat when it begins to spread throughout the body. MU researchers recently published an article in the online medical journal PLoS ONE discussing how the communication systems of bacteria can be manipulated to command cancer cells how to act.

Jeffrey Bryan, associate professor of veterinary medicine, worked on the preparation and analysis of the study.

“(Cancer cells) become extremely selfish, essentially,” he said. “They behave in their own best interests and in direct contradiction to signals from the rest of the body telling them how to behave in the society of the body.”

These “rebel” cells do not respond to the communications normally sent out by the body. They use too much energy, create too much waste and invade and damage normal structures.

However, in tests conducted by Senthil Kumar, assistant research professor of veterinary medicine in the Comparative Oncology and Epigenetics Laboratory, cancer cells were affected by a compound secreted in bacterial communication, homoserine lactone.

The results indicate that the compound could control cancer cells, preventing them from spreading.

“We are trying to stop the proliferation, or multiplication, of the cells,” Kumar said.

This will cause the cancer to be limited to one location in the body.

Kumar has conducted several tests on both cancer and normal cells in a lab setting. Early tests show that homoserine lactone not only limited the growth of cancerous cells in 2-D and 3-D environments, but it also had no significant effect on the normal cells tested.

“The perfect cancer drug is 100 percent toxic to cancer cells and zero percent toxic to normal cells,” Bryan said. “And that’s a real challenge.”

The researchers said they will not know the full extent of potential side effects of the treatment until they start testing the compound in animals.

The next step is to run tests using mice, Kumar said. Researchers need to be sure they are delivering the treatment efficiently.

After initial testing, Bryan said his goal is to get approved for a clinical study to treat small animals, such as dogs and cats, that come to the MU Veterinary Hospital with cancer.

Although running human clinical trials is a distant goal for the researchers, they are still optimistic about the treatment’s future applications. Theoretically, Bryan said he hopes their team might find a way to use bacteria to find and attack tumor cells more accurately, improving their results and getting one step closer to a “perfect” cancer drug.

Hopefully, using tumor-seeking bacteria will allow treatments to more accurately target cancer cells, making treatment less toxic to patients.

“Can we use tumor-seeking bacteria?” Bryan said. “(If so,) we can essentially leave a calling card at the site of the tumor with these molecules. It’s basically a party invitation.”

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