How the Gut Microbiome Affects Cancer Treatment

The gut microbiome, home to hundreds of thousands of bacteria, fungi, viruses and other microorganisms, may play an important role in how people respond to cancer treatment. In a recent paper, published in JAMA Oncology, researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston suggest that targeting the microbiome may improve therapeutic response to cancer surgery, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and more.

“We know that a healthy gut is key to our overall health,” lead author Khalid Shah, MS, PhD, of the Center for Stem Cell and Translational Immunotherapy in Brigham’s Department of Neurosurgery said in a press release. “Our gut is so important that we often call it our ‘second’ brain. In recent years we have come to appreciate the many roles of the gut, including the gut-brain connection and the connection between the gut and our immune system. Conversely, intestinal dysfunction or dysbiosis can have a negative effect on our health.

An active area of ​​research is in immunotherapies such as immune checkpoint inhibitors.

Studies of bacterial species in fecal samples from responders and non-responders suggest that the types of microorganisms, or microbiota, may impact treatment response. Studies have also suggested that diet, probiotics, antibiotics and bacteriophages – viruses that infect bacteria – can influence the gut microbiome and, in turn, the response to immunotherapy.

But the role of the microbiome goes beyond immunotherapy. The review details how the microbiota can influence the response to chemotherapy and how, conversely, these cancer therapies can affect the microbiome and lead to unwanted side effects.

“Overall, these findings support the potential of influencing the gut microbiota to decrease the side effects of conventional cancer treatment,” Shah said. “There is strong evidence that the gut microbiome can positively influence cancer therapies,” Shah said. “There are still exciting possibilities to explore, including the influence of healthy eating, probiotics, new therapies and more.”

However, the authors advise cancer patients to exercise caution when using probiotic supplements and making dietary changes, as there is no ideal combination of bacteria.

To learn more about the link between gut microbiota and antitumor immunity, click here. For more on the microbiome and immunotherapy, see “The Frontier of the Microbiome”.

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