In the past few years, we’ve seen a marked increase in discussions about the microbiome, the microorganisms found in the gut. Studies have shown that the quality of these microorganisms is linked directly to many aspects of our health, impacting immunity, brain health, and weight issues. This emphasis on gut health has raised questions about just how important the microbiome is, and whether it has anything to with the development of diseases like cancer.
Cancer Research UK, one of the world’s biggest cancer charities, has allocated $25 million towards a study to determine if the microbiome is linked to colorectal cancer, the third most common cancer in the U.S.
The risk of colorectal cancer is greatly increased by lifestyle factors such as diet and weight control. These lifestyle factors also happen to impact the quality of the microbiome, suggesting that there may be a link between the gut and the development, progression, and treatment of colorectal cancer.
The project will be led by two U.S. researchers, cancer-genetics specialist Dr. Matthew Meyerson of Dana-Faber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School, and Dr. Wendy Garrett of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public health, who specializes in immunology and infectious diseases. The project will be extensive, involving 14 different investigators and spread among six different countries.
According to Garrett, “The colon is the most densely population microbial environment on the planet. Our tumors and cancers also harbor microbes that can contribute to whether we respond to a drug or not.” This means that there are many avenues for studies to take in exploring this relationship between the microbiome and colorectal cancer. Researchers can look at the impact of the microbiome in terms of cancer risk, cancer development, cancer treatment, and cancer care.
The study will use animal models and samples from colon cancer patients to look at the relationship between gut bacteria and colorectal cancer. Innovative technologies will allow the teams to precisely map out the microbiome. Meyerson says that’s one of the reasons “now is the right time to be investigating this phenomenon of cancer.” It’s his hope that the study will lead to cancer therapies that target the microbiome directly.
The study is still in its very early phases, and it’s still unclear whether or not the team will gather the evidence needed to pinpoint a direct relationship between the microbiome and colorectal cancer. The team will be well equipped to complete the project so long as its early data gives enough cause.
Cancer Research UK traditionally funds UK based-projects, but has recently starting branching out to support “Grand Challenges.” These larger-scale projects work to join separated research fields in order to create groundbreaking treatments for particularly challenging areas of cancer research.
This unique research challenge hopes to unite the “brights minds from a range of disciplines and from around the world to focus on specific challenges in cancer research,” says Iain Foulkes, PhD, and Cancer Research UK’s executive director of research and innovation. He goes on to say that “Cancer is a global problem that requires a global solution.” The goal of projects like this one is to see what happens when we join together the world’s greatest thinkers. Collaboration is necessary if we ever want to tackle a tenacious disease like cancer.