Bacterial Engineering - A New Approach to Lung Cancer Therapy?
Last updated: April 2023
Bacteria play an important role in a person's immune system. Today, scientists are looking at ways to use bacteria to treat cancer and other illnesses. One research team at Columbia University is using engineered bacteria to target and destroy cancer cells.
They are trying to create a new "living medicine," which uses a living organism to treat a disease.9-11
Why is this bacteria essential to understand?
There is a strong link between bacteria and human health. Your body contains more bacteria than cells.
Your body's natural community of bacteria is called your microbiome. A healthy microbiome can help support your immune system.1-3
Changes in a person's normal microbiome are linked to lung cancer. For example, the type and number of bacteria in the lungs differ in people with lung cancer from those without it. However, we need more research to understand why.3-8
What is engineered bacteria?
Every living cell contains a genetic code. This code comes in the form of DNA. The DNA acts as a set of instructions. Today, scientists can edit DNA and change how cells work.
Scientists can apply this technology to a bacteria's DNA.10,12
With DNA editing, scientists can program bacteria to release toxins that destroy cancer cells. Programmed bacteria can be injected into cancerous growths, also known as tumors.
Then, the bacteria grow and deliver the cell destroying toxins inside tumors. These bacteria can actually reach areas that other treatments can not!9-11
Bacterial engineering: A Columbia University study
The Columbia University study reveals a new way to use engineered bacteria to create better treatments for lung cancer.9
How was this study done?
Creating living medicine can take many years. But, this study found a faster way to test new bacterial treatments. This was a preclinical study, which means it was done in a lab.9
The scientists first grew engineered bacteria with tiny clumps of non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) tumor cells, or "mini-tumors."
After further testing, they combined the most effective toxin with an anti-cancer drug that targets cancer cells. Then, this combination treatment was injected into NSCLC tumors in mice.9
This research involved multiple steps in testing several different treatment combinations:9
- Step 1: The researchers engineered bacteria to produce toxins. They tested 10 different toxins. They grew the engineered bacteria in the lab with 6 different NSCLC mini-tumors. The most effective toxin at stopping tumor growth was called theta toxin.
Step 2: The researchers injected theta toxin-producing bacteria into NSCLC tumors in mice. This treatment reduced tumor growth and did not harm the mice.
Step 3: Researchers tested cancer cells after exposure to theta toxin. Based on the results of their tests, the researchers chose 7 anti-cancer drugs to target the cancer cells. They tested these 7 anti-cancer drugs plus theta toxin on mini-tumors. The most effective combination was theta toxin plus a drug called MK2206.
Step 4: The researchers tested theta toxin-producing bacteria plus MK2206 in mice. The treatment was deemed safe and effective in mice.
What did the scientists find?
The researchers found a combination therapy that was safe and effective at stopping the growth of NSCLC tumors in mice. Also, the process the research team developed can test other new cancer treatments faster than previous methods could.9
Why is research on bacterial engineering for lung cancer necessary?
In the past decade, lung cancer survival rates have increased. But lung cancer continues to cause more deaths than any other type of cancer. Drugs that work with the immune system to target cancer are improving outcomes. Still, better lung cancer treatments are needed.13-15
Research takes many, many years
Turning discoveries into effective treatments takes many years. The results of this study may speed up the creation of new cancer therapies that harness the power of living medicine.9
Remember that studying a new treatment in the lab is only a first step. After confirming that a new therapy is safe in a lab, researchers can move to human clinical trials. There, the therapy must undergo several successful rounds to prove its safety and effectiveness.9
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