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Gangrene bacteria could be a cancer fighter

October 17, 2018

The mere thought of gangrene may make you shudder, but as one journalist put it, the enemy of my enemy can be your friend.

In a small preliminary study, scientists have seen promising responses after injecting cancer patients with the bacteria that causes “gas gangrene,” a deadly form of the tissue-killing disease.

According to U.S. News & World Report, the scientists injected a weakened form of the Clostridium novyi bacteria called Clostridium novyi-NT (the “NT” stands for nontoxic) into the tumors of 24 patients. Tumor shrinkage of more than 10 percent was observed in 23 percent of patients – potentially an underestimate due to natural infection-related inflammation. Cancer stabilized in 21 patients after the therapy, according to the report.

The scientists believe the bacteria could be working in two ways:

  • Infecting tumors and directly destroying tumor cells.
  • Priming the immune system to fight the cancer.

The holy grail: activating the immune system to fight cancer

“From these preliminary results, it appears that Clostridium novyi-NT is able to activate the immune response besides causing tumor destruction,”lead researcher Dr. Filip Janku, an associate professor at the department of investigational cancer therapeutics at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, told the Independent. “We were extremely encouraged by the results of this trial, especially in patients with advanced sarcomas, where immunotherapy hasn’t proven very efficacious.”

Cancer researchers are eager to see how the work unfolds. “You would expect that the injected lesion would have some type of response because you’re disrupting the tumor cells,” Sacha Gnjatic, associate director of the Human Immune Monitoring Center at Mount Sinai in New York City, told U.S. News.” What would be interesting is if this could prime an immune response that would eventually also take care of the non-injected tumors. That’s the holy grail of immunotherapy.”

The approach benefits from the fact that the bacteria thrives in low-oxygen environments like tumors.

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The promise of “bacterial therapy,” as illustrated in the gangrene work, parallels advances in immunotherapy, for which a Nobel Prize was recently granted. The next phase is combining bacterial therapy and immunotherapy. Good news: It’s under way.

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