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Attacking Cancer with Soil Bacteria

September 15, 2011

Brit Trogen

 

Tumor hypoxia, in which cancer cells have lower oxygen concentrations than surrounding tissue, has often caused problems during cancer treatment. As a tumor outgrows its blood supply, becoming oxygen-deficient, it also tends to become resistant to radiation therapy and chemotherapy, and usually has to be re-oxygenated for treatment to succeed. This is a little like someone cutting off their IV tube when they suspect the nurse is poisoning them. We either need to get a tube back in that sucker, or tell someone to check every hospital room for the one guy who isn't plugged in.

 

A new cancer treatment, however, is turning this feature of tumors into a major weakness, using a simple yet elegant new strategy. The therapy makes use of Clostridium sporogenes, a common anaerobic soil bacteria. This bacterium produces a spore that develops into a new bacterial cell only in oxygen-depleted conditions, and it's using this spore that tumor cells can be directly targeted.

 

The therapy has two parts: first, inject the spores into patients so they localize to the tumor sites. At these sites, a specific bacterial enzyme will be produced once the spores have taken root. Second, the cancer drug itself, in a deactivated form, is introduced to the patient. It is only when this "pro-drug" meets the Clostridium enzyme that the drug is activated, and the tumor begins to be attacked. Once the tumor is destroyed, the oxygen in the surrounding tissues will deactivate the whole operation. 

 

This research is only now entering clinical trials, led by Professor Nigel Minton at the University of Nottingham, to be tested on cancer patients in 2013. But with this kind of out-of-the-box thinking cropping up, in such non-invasive, specific and ingenious ways, it really does give you reason to hope.

 

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