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In 2013, two independent teams of scientists, one in Maryland and one in France, made a surprising observation: both germ-free mice and mice treated with a heavy dose of antibiotics responded poorly to a variety of cancer therapies typically effective in rodents. The Maryland team, led by Romina Goldszmid and Giorgio Trinchieri of the National Cancer Institute, showed that both an investigational immunotherapy and an approved platinum chemotherapy shrank a variety of implanted tumor types and improved survival to a far greater extent in mice with intact microbiomes.1 The French group, led by INSERM’s Laurence Zitvogel, got similar results when testing the long-standing chemotherapeutic agent cyclophosphamide in cancer-implanted mice, as well as in mice genetically engineered to develop tumors of the lung.2
The findings incited a flurry of research and speculation about how gut microbes contribute to cancer cell death, even in tumors far from the gastrointestinal tract. The most logical link between the microbiome and cancer is the immune system. Resident microbes can either dial up inflammation or tamp it down, and can modulate immune cells’ vigilance for invaders. Not only does the immune system appear to be at the root of how the microbiome interacts with cancer therapies, it also appears to mediate how our bacteria, fungi, and viruses influence cancer development in the first place.
It’s become pretty obvious that the commensal microbiota affect inflammation and, through that or through other mechanisms, affect carcinogenesis.—Giorgio Trinchieri,
National Cancer Institute
“We clearly see shifts in the [microbial] community that precede development of tumors,” says microbiologist and immunologist Patrick Schloss, who studies the influence of the microbiome on colon cancer at the University of Michigan.
But the relationship between the microbiome and cancer is complex: while some microbes promote cell proliferation, others appear to protect us against cancerous growth. And in some cases, the conditions that spur one cancer may have the opposite effect in another. “It’s become pretty obvious that the commensal microbiota affect inflammation and, through that or through other mechanisms, affect carcinogenesis,” says Trinchieri. “What we really need is to have a much better understanding of which species, which type of bug, is doing what and try to change the balance.”
© AL GRANBERGIn the late 1970s, pathologist J. Robin Warren of Royal Perth Hospital in Western Australia began to notice that curved bacteria often appeared in stomach tissue biopsies taken from patients with chronic gastritis, an inflammation of the stomach lining that often precedes the development of stomach cancer. He and Barry J. Marshall, a trainee in internal medicine at the hospital, speculated that the bacterium, now called Helicobacter pylori, was somehow causing the gastritis.3 So committed was Marshall to demonstrating the microbe’s causal relationship to the inflammatory condition that he had his own stomach biopsied to show that it contained no H. pylori, then infected himself with the bacterium and documented his subsequent experience of gastritis.4 Scientists now accept that H. pylori, a common gut microbe that is present in about 50 percent of the world’s population, is responsible for many cases of gastritis and most stomach ulcers, and is a strong risk factor for stomach cancer.5 Marshall and Warren earned the 2005 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work.
H. pylori may be the most clear-cut example of a gut bacterium that influences cancer development, but it is likely not the only one. Researchers who study cancer in mice have long had anecdotal evidence that shifts in the microbiome influence the development of diverse tumor types. “You have a mouse model of carcinogenesis. It works beautifully,” says Trinchieri. “You move to another institution. It works completely differently,” likely because the animals’ microbiomes vary with environment.
Around the turn of the 21st century, cancer researchers began to systematically experiment with the rodent microbiome, and soon had several lines of evidence linking certain gut microbes with a mouse’s risk of colon cancer. In 2001, for example, Shoichi Kado of the Yakult Central Institute for Microbiological Research in Japan and colleagues found that a strain of immunocompromised mice rapidly developed colon tumors, but that germ-free versions of these mice did not.6 That same year, an MIT-based group led by the late David Schauer demonstrated that infecting mice with the bacterium Citrobacter rodentium spurred colon tumor development.7 And in 2003, MIT’s Susan Erdman and her colleagues found that they could induce colon cancer in immunocompromised mice by infecting them with Helicobacter hepaticus, a relative of? H. pylori that commonly exists within the murine gut microbiome.8
More recent work has documented a similar link between colon cancer and the gut microbiome in humans. In 2014, a team led by Schloss sequenced 16S rRNA genes isolated from the stool of 90 people, some with colon cancer, some with precancerous adenomas, and still others with no disease.9 The researchers found that the feces of people with cancer tended to have an altered composition of bacteria, with an excess of the common mouth microbes Fusobacterium or Porphyromonas. A few months later, Peer Bork of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory performed metagenomic sequencing of stool samples from 156 people with or without colorectal cancer. Bork and his colleagues found they could predict the presence or absence of cancer using the relative abundance of 22 bacterial species, including Porphyromonas and Fusobacterium.10 They could also use the method to predict colorectal cancer with about the same accuracy as a blood test, correctly identifying about 50 percent of cancers while yielding false positives less than 10 percent of the time. When the two tests were combined, they caught more than 70 percent of cancers.
Whether changes in the microbiota in colon cancer patients are harbingers of the disease or a consequence of tumor development remained unclear. “What comes first, the change in the microbiome or tumor development?” asks Schloss. To investigate this question, he and his colleagues treated mice with microbiome-altering antibiotics before administering a carcinogen and an inflammatory agent, then compared the outcomes in those animals and in mice that had received only the carcinogenic and inflammatory treatments, no antibiotics. The antibiotic-treated animals had significantly fewer and smaller colon tumors than the animals with an undisturbed microbiome, suggesting that resident bacteria were in some way promoting cancer development. And when the researchers transferred microbiota from healthy mice to antibiotic-treated or germ-free mice, the animals developed more tumors following carcinogen exposure. Sterile mice that received microbiota from mice already bearing malignancies developed the most tumors of all.11
Most recently, Schloss and his colleagues showed that treating mice with seven unique combinations of antibiotics prior to exposing them to carcinogens yielded variable but predictable levels of tumor formation. The researchers determined that the number of tumors corresponded to the unique ways that each antibiotic cocktail modulated the microbiome.12
What comes first, the change in the microbiome or tumor development?—Patrick Schloss,
University of Michigan
“We’ve kind of proven to ourselves, at least, that the microbiome is involved in colon cancer,” says Schloss, who hypothesizes that gut bacteria–driven inflammation is to blame for creating an environment that is hospitable to tumor development and growth. Gain or loss of certain components of the resident bacterial community could lead to the release of reactive oxygen species, damaging cells and their genetic material. Inflammation also involves increased release of growth factors and blood vessel proliferation, potentially supporting the growth of tumors. (See illustration above.)
Recent research has also yielded evidence that the gut microbiota impact the development of cancer in sites far removed from the intestinal tract, likely through similar immune-modulating mechanisms.
© EYE OF SCIENCE/SCIENCE SOURCEIn the mid-2000s, MIT’s Erdman began infecting a strain of mice predisposed to intestinal tumors with H. hepaticus and observing the subsequent development of colon cancer in some of the animals. To her surprise, one of the mice developed a mammary tumor. Then, more of the mice went on to develop mammary tumors. “This told us that something really interesting was going on,” Erdman recalls. Sure enough, she and her colleagues found that mice infected with H. hepaticus were more likely to develop mammary tumors than mice not exposed to the bacterium.13 The researchers showed that systemic immune activation and inflammation could contribute to mammary tumors in other, less cancer-prone mouse models, as well as to the development of prostate cancer.
At the University of Chicago, Thomas Gajewski and his colleagues have taken a slightly different approach to studying the role of the microbiome in cancer development. By comparing Black 6 mice coming from different vendors—Taconic Biosciences (formerly Taconic Farms) and the Jackson © DR. GARY GAUGLER/SCIENCE SOURCELaboratory—Gajewski takes advantage of the fact that the animals’ different origins result in different gut microbiomes. “We deliberately stayed away from antibiotics, because we had a desire to model how intersubject heterogeneity [in cancer development] might be impacted by the commensals they happen to be colonized with,” says Gajewski in an email to The Scientist.
© SCIMAT/SCIENCE SOURCELast year, the researchers published the results of a study comparing the progression of melanoma tumors implanted under the mice’s skin, finding that tumors in the Taconic mice grew more aggressively than those in the Jackson mice. When the researchers housed the different types of mice together before their tumors were implanted, however, these differences disappeared. And transferring fecal material from the Jackson mice into the Taconic mice altered the latter’s tumor progression.14
Instead of promoting cancer, in these experiments the gut microbiome appeared to slow tumor growth. Specifically, the reduced tumor growth in the Jackson mice correlated with the presence of Bifidobacterium, which led to the greater buildup of T?cells in the Jackson mice’s tumors. Bifidobacteria activate dendritic cells, which present antigens from bacteria or cancer cells to T?cells, training them to hunt down and kill these invaders. Feeding Taconic mice bifidobacteria improved their response to the implanted melanoma cells.
“One hypothesis going into the experiments was that we might identify immune-suppressive bacteria, or commensals that shift the immune response towards a character that was unfavorable for tumor control,” says Gajewski. “But in fact, we found that even a single type of bacteria could boost the antitumor immune response.”
Ideally, the immune system should recognize cancer as invasive and nip tumor growth in the bud. But cancer cells display “self” molecules that can inhibit immune attack. A new type of immunotherapy, dubbed checkpoint inhibition or blockade, spurs the immune system to attack cancer by blocking either the tumor cells’ surface molecules or the receptors on T?cells that bind to them.
CANCER THERAPY AND THE MICROBIOME
In addition to influencing the development and progression of cancer by regulating inflammation and other immune pathways, resident gut bacteria appear to influence the effectiveness of many cancer therapies that are intended to work in concert with host immunity to eliminate tumors.
As part of their comparison of Jackson and Taconic mice, Gajewski and his colleagues decided to test a type of investigational checkpoint inhibitor that targets PD-L1, a ligand found in high quantities on the surface of multiple types of cancer cells. Monoclonal antibodies that bind to PD-L1 block the PD-1 receptors on T?cells from doing so, allowing an immune response to proceed against the tumor cells. While treating Taconic mice with PD-L1–targeting antibodies did improve their tumor responses, they did even better when that treatment was combined with fecal transfers from Jackson mice, indicating that the microbiome and the immunotherapy can work together to take down cancer. And when the researchers combined the anti-PD-L1 therapy with a bifidobacteria-enriched diet, the mice’s tumors virtually disappeared.14
Gajewski’s group is now surveying the gut microbiota in humans undergoing therapy with checkpoint inhibitors to better understand which bacterial species are linked to positive outcomes. The researchers are also devising a clinical trial in which they will give Bifidobacterium supplements to cancer patients being treated with the approved anti-PD-1 therapy pembrolizumab (Keytruda), which targets the immune receptor PD-1 on T?cells, instead of the cancer-cell ligand PD-L1.
Meanwhile, Zitvogel’s group at INSERM is investigating interactions between the microbiome and another class of checkpoint inhibitors called CTLA-4 inhibitors, which includes the breakthrough melanoma treatment ipilimumab (Yervoy). The researchers found that tumors in antibiotic-treated and germ-free mice had poorer responses to a CTLA-4–targeting antibody compared with mice harboring unaltered microbiomes.15 Particular Bacteroides species were associated with T-cell infiltration of tumors, and feeding Bacteroides fragilis to antibiotic-treated or germ-free mice improved the animals’ responses to the immunotherapy. As an added bonus, treatment with these “immunogenic” Bacteroides species decreased signs of colitis, an intestinal inflammatory condition that is a dangerous side effect in patients using checkpoint inhibitors. Moreover, Zitvogel and her colleagues showed that human metastatic melanoma patients treated with ipilimumab tended to have elevated levels of B. fragilis in their microbiomes. Mice transplanted with feces from patients who showed particularly strong B. fragilis gains did better on anti-CTLA-4 treatment than did mice transplanted with feces from patients with normal levels of B. fragilis.
“There are bugs that allow the therapy to work, and at the same time, they protect against colitis,” says Trinchieri. “That is very exciting, because not only [can] we do something to improve the therapy, but we can also, at the same time, try to reduce the side effect.”
And these checkpoint inhibitors aren’t the only cancer therapies whose effects are modulated by the microbiome. Trinchieri has also found that an immunotherapy that combines antibodies against interleukin-10 receptors with CpG oligonucleotides is more effective in mice with unaltered microbiomes.1 He and his NCI colleague Goldszmid further found that the platinum chemotherapy oxaliplatin (Eloxatin) was more effective in mice with intact microbiomes, and Zitvogel’s group has shown that the chemotherapeutic agent cyclophosphamide is dependent on the microbiota for its proper function.
Although the mechanisms by which the microbiome influences the effectiveness of cancer therapies remains incompletely understood, researchers speculate that the immune system is the key link.
Although the mechanisms by which the microbiome influences the effectiveness of such therapies remains incompletely understood, researchers once again speculate that the immune system is the key link. Cyclophosphamide, for example, spurs the body to generate two types of T?helper cells, T?helper 1 cells and a subtype of T?helper 17 cells referred to as “pathogenic,” both of which destroy tumor cells. Zitvogel and her colleagues found that, in mice with unaltered microbiomes, treatment with cyclophosphamide works by disrupting the intestinal mucosa, allowing bacteria to escape into the lymphoid tissues just outside the gut. There, the bacteria spur the body to generate T?helper 1 and T?helper 17 cells, which translocate to the tumor. When the researchers transferred the “pathogenic” T?helper 17 cells into antibiotic-treated mice, the mice’s response to chemotherapy was partly restored.
As the link between the microbiome and cancer becomes clearer, researchers are thinking about how they can manipulate a patient’s resident microbial communities to improve their prognosis and treatment outcomes. “Once you figure out exactly what is happening at the molecular level, if there is something promising there, I would be shocked if people don’t then go in and try to modulate the microbiome, either by using pharmaceuticals or using probiotics,” says Michael Burns, a postdoc in the lab of University of Minnesota genomicist Ran Blekhman.
Even if researchers succeed in identifying specific, beneficial alterations to the microbiome, however, molding the microbiome is not simple. “It’s a messy, complicated system that we don’t understand,” says Schloss.
So far, studies of the gut microbiome and colon cancer have turned up few consistent differences between cancer patients and healthy controls. And the few bacterial groups that have repeatedly shown up are not present in every cancer patient. “We should move away from saying, ‘This is a causal species of bacteria,’” says Blekhman. “It’s more the function of a community instead of just a single bacterium.”
But the study of the microbiome in cancer is young. If simply adding one type of microbe into a person’s gut is not enough, researchers may learn how to dose people with patient-specific combinations of microbes or antibiotics. In February 2016, a team based in Finland and China showed that a probiotic mixture dubbed Prohep could reduce liver tumor size by 40 percent in mice, likely by promoting an anti-inflammatory environment in the gut.16
“If it is true that, in humans, we can alter the course of the disease by modulating the composition of the microbiota,” says José Conejo-Garcia of the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia, “that’s going to be very impactful.”
Kate Yandell has been a freelance writer living Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In February she became an associate editor at Cancer Today.
The microbiome doesn’t act in isolation; a patient’s genetic background can also greatly influence response to therapy. Last year, for example, the Wistar Institute’s José Garcia-Conejo and Melanie Rutkowski, now an assistant professor at the University of Virginia, showed that a dominant polymorphism of the gene for the innate immune protein toll-like receptor 5 (TLR5) influences clinical outcomes in cancer patients by changing how the patients’ immune cells interact with their gut microbes (Cancer Cell, 27:27-40, 2015).
More than 7 percent of people carry a specific mutation in TLR5 that prevents them from mounting a full immune response when exposed to bacterial flagellin. Analyzing both genetic and survival data from the Cancer Genome Atlas, Conejo-Garcia, Rutkowski, and their colleagues found that estrogen receptor–positive breast cancer patients who carry the TLR5 mutation, called the R392X polymorphism, have worse outcomes than patients without the mutation. Among patients with ovarian cancer, on the other hand, those with the TLR5 mutation were more likely to live at least six years after diagnosis than patients who don’t carry the mutation.
Investigating the mutation’s contradictory effects, the researchers found that mice with normal TLR5 produce higher levels of the cytokine interleukin 6 (IL-6) than those carrying the mutant version, which have higher levels of a different cytokine called interleukin 17 (IL-17). But when the researchers knocked out the animals’ microbiomes, these differences in cytokine production disappeared, as did the differences in cancer progression between mutant and wild-type animals.
“The effectiveness of depleting specific populations or modulating the composition of the microbiome is going to affect very differently people who are TLR5-positive or TLR5-negative,” says Conejo-Garcia. And Rutkowski speculates that many more polymorphisms linked to cancer prognosis may act via microbiome–immune system interactions. “I think that our paper is just the tip of the iceberg.”
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- S. Viaud et al., “The intestinal microbiota modulates the anticancer immune effects of cyclophosphamide,” Science, 342:971-76, 2013.
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- J.P. Zackular et al., “The human gut microbiome as a screening tool for colorectal cancer,” Cancer Prev Res, 7:1112-21, 2014.
- G. Zeller et al., “Potential of fecal microbiota for early-stage detection of colorectal cancer,” Mol Syst Biol, 10:766, 2014.
- J.P. Zackular et al., “The gut microbiome modulates colon tumorigenesis,” mBio, 4:e00692-13, 2013.
- J.P. Zackular et al., “Manipulation of the gut microbiota reveals role in colon tumorigenesis,” mSphere, doi:10.1128/mSphere.00001-15, 2015.
- V.P. Rao et al., “Innate immune inflammatory response against enteric bacteria Helicobacter hepaticus induces mammary adenocarcinoma in mice,” Cancer Res, 66:7395, 2006.
- A. Sivan et al., “Commensal Bifidobacterium promotes antitumor immunity and facilitates anti-PD-L1 efficacy,” Science, 350:1084-89, 2015.
- M. Vétizou et al., “Anticancer immunotherapy by CTLA-4 blockade relies on the gut microbiota,” Science, 350:1079-84, 2015.
- J. Li et al., “Probiotics modulated gut microbiota suppresses hepatocellular carcinoma growth in mice,” PNAS, doi:10.1073/pnas.1518189113, 2016.