Aggressive colon cancer: Newly identified bacteria found in half of tumors may drive growth


Category:  News & Politics

Via:  perrie-halpern  •  4 weeks ago  •  11 comments

By:   Kaitlin Sullivan

Aggressive colon cancer: Newly identified bacteria found in half of tumors may drive growth
A newly identified subspecies of bacteria may drive aggressive colon cancer growth. Does the bacteria play a role in the surge in cases in younger adults?

S E E D E D   C O N T E N T

A type of bacteria that causes dental plaque may be behind a treatment-resistant form of colorectal cancer, a study published Wednesday in the journal Nature found.

The particular bacterium, which appears to shield tumor cells from cancer-fighting drugs, was found in 50% of the tumors tested in the study. The discovery, experts say, could pave the way for new treatments and possibly new methods of screening.

Colon cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States and is expected to kill more than 53,000 people in the nation in 2024, according to the American Cancer Society.

Rates are rising sharply among younger people: The percentage of people younger than 55 diagnosed with colon cancer almost doubled between 1995 and 2019, leaping from 11% to 20% of cases. What's more, these cases are often diagnosed at later, more aggressive stages.

Experts are still struggling to explain the shift.

"Colorectal cancer is very treatable when caught early, but the cases in younger people are increasing and we don't know why," said Dr. Flavio Rocha, a surgical oncologist and physician in chief at the Oregon Health & Science University's Knight Cancer Institute, who was not involved in the study.

The new research doesn't answer that question; it's far too early to implicate this bacteria in the rise in cases in younger people. What's more, most of the patients in the study were over the age of 50.

But the findings raise "the question as to whether there are elevated levels of this bacterium in young onset colorectal cancer which is on the rise globally for unknown reasons," said co-lead study author Susan Bullman, an assistant professor of human biology at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle.

Bacteria with a secret

Scientists have suspected a link between the bacteria, called Fusobacterium nucleatum, and colorectal cancer growth for almost a decade. The bacteria is usually only found in the mouth, far from the colon.

In the mouth, it's one of the most common types of disease-causing bacteria, linked to gum disease and plaque buildup. But it was unclear how it could withstand the journey through the gut and eventually invade tumor cells in places in the body where these types of bacteria usually don't survive.

In the study, Bullman and her colleagues looked at the bacterial makeup of almost 200 colorectal tumors, as well as stool samples from more than 1,200 people, half of whom did not have cancer.

What they learned was that the bacteria was a bit more complicated than once thought. Namely, it has two distinct subspecies, one of which appears to shield colorectal tumors from cancer-fighting drugs.

"It acts like a cloak," Bullman said.

Normally, immune cells called T-cells recognize and attack tumor cells. But this bacteria recruits another type of immune cell into the cancer cells, one that lets them escape the T-cells.

The stealthy subspecies was present in 50% of the colorectal tumors collected in the study. The corresponding stool samples also had elevated amounts of the subspecies, compared to their healthy counterparts.

"Patients who have high levels of this bacteria in their colorectal tumors have a far worse prognosis," Bullman said. "They don't respond as well to chemotherapy and they have an increased risk of recurrence."

The subspecies may also cause cancer to form in the first place.

When Bullman and her team transplanted the subspecies to mice, they appeared to cause precancerous polyps to form, one of the first warning signs of colorectal cancer, though she added that this causation hasn't yet been proven in humans.

The researchers also found clues that may answer the question as to how Fusobacterium nucleatum can get to the colon in the first place: The bacterium appears to be able to survive the journey through the stomach, withstanding what scientists previously thought would be a toxic dose of stomach acid.

New targets for treatment

The discovery of the subspecies has huge consequences for targeted therapies that are already underway, said Dr. Michael White, an assistant professor of colorectal surgery at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

"There is evidence that if you clear these bacteria, there is more response during treatment," said White, who was not involved with the new research. Clinical trials are slated to soon test whether treating a patient with antibiotics prior to chemotherapy will induce a better response, he said.

Knowing more about which bacterial subspecies, including Fusobacterium nucleatum, are dangerous will allow for a more targeted approach, he said.

That could potentially include prevention.

It's possible that scientists could identify the subspecies while it's still in the mouth and give a person antibiotics at that point, wiping it out before it could travel to the colon, Bullman said. Even if antibiotics can't successfully eliminate the bacteria from the mouth, its presence there could serve as an indication that someone is at higher risk for aggressive colon cancer, she added.

Rocha agreed. In the future, part of colorectal cancer screening could be as simple as a mouth swab, he said.

Understanding the newly identified subspecies could also lead to the development of new antibiotics that would specifically target this bacterial subtype, rather than wiping out both forms of the bacteria or all of the bacteria in the mouth.

There's also the possibility of harnessing the bacteria to do the cancer-fighting work.

The subtype has already proven that it can enter cancer cells quite easily, so it might be possible to genetically modify the bacteria to carry cancer-fighting drugs directly into the tumors, Bullman said.

Researchers are just beginning to scratch the surface of the ways a person's microbiome plays a role in the individual's cancer risk, Rocha said, but it's one of the most important concepts being explored in cancer research today.

Kaitlin Sullivan


jrDiscussion - desc
Trout Giggles
Professor Principal
1  Trout Giggles    4 weeks ago


As a person who lost her maternal grandmother and maternal aunt to this damn disease, I'm what they call high risk so I've been getting regular colonoscopies since I was 38

And about this bacteria surviving stomach acid....explain food poisoning from pathogenic E coli. Obviously that nasty little beasty survives stomach acid

Professor Principal
2  Kavika     4 weeks ago

This is of great interest to me. Red survived colon cancer in 2023, it required surgery and 10 months of chemo and in Deceber she was declared cancer free the last test being the ctDNA blood test, the worlds most expensive blood test at $5,000 each test. 


Trout Giggles
Professor Principal
2.1  Trout Giggles  replied to  Kavika @2    4 weeks ago

That's wonderful news, Kavika! I'm very happy for the both of you

Professor Principal
2.1.1  Kavika   replied to  Trout Giggles @2.1    4 weeks ago

Thanks, Trout it was a rough year. 

The moment I heard those immoral words coming from her mouth,,'''Kavika you're one crazy Indian '' I knew she was back.

Drinker of the Wry
Junior Expert
2.2  Drinker of the Wry  replied to  Kavika @2    4 weeks ago

Ringing that cancer bell at first was a bittersweet moment for for me.  I felt bad celebrating within earshot of so many sick people hooked up to their chemo infusion pumps.  But then I decided it also gave some hope to them that they too might survive this terrible scourge.  

Congratulations to you both, sometimes I think an advanced cancer is harder on the spouse than the patient.

PhD Quiet
2.2.1  shona1  replied to  Drinker of the Wry @2.2    4 weeks ago

Morning...I think I must have been one of the lucky ones...I didn't get any side effects of chemo yes my hair fell out or the radiation.. actually wondered did it work..the stem cell collection also went above their expectations..only took two goes instead of the normal three..

No bell for me, quietly left St Vincent's and after so many round trips of 700 Kms over 1.5 years I am still going very well...blood tests next month have them every 3 and just take it as it comes..my five years rolls around in two weeks and that's usually when things start going pear shaped with myeloma so I will just take it as it comes..

Now I get treated at my local hospital for a bone strengthener and my specialist is only an hour's drive away..a major relief...I am on no medication at all at the moment so that's even better..could be the Vegemite..😁

When the human body stuffs up, it really stuffs up..but it can also do amazing things when push comes to shove...

I just look at it...I can't change it as much as I want to, so i just get on with it..as we all do..☀️☀️☀️☀️

Drinker of the Wry
Junior Expert
2.2.2  Drinker of the Wry  replied to  shona1 @2.2.1    4 weeks ago
I just look at it...I can't change it as much as I want to, so i just get on with it..as we all do..☀️

You got it shona and wonderful news.  I had a similar attitude, I was educated myself, made the best decisions that I could, but took the precautions of finally writing a well, a living will and a trust for my daughter.  I also built a spread sheet for my wife with all our financial information in it.  Then I went about trying to heal the best of that I could.  I’ve been very fortunate.

PhD Quiet
2.3  shona1  replied to  Kavika @2    4 weeks ago

Morning...great to hear Kavika..damn cancer has many shapes and forms and it is just a major pain in the arse..

Professor Principal
2.3.1  Kavika   replied to  shona1 @2.3    4 weeks ago

Thanks, shona. it was the reason will didn't spend some time in Oz last year, but we'll be changing that this year for sure.

PhD Quiet
2.3.2  shona1  replied to  Kavika @2.3.1    4 weeks ago

Morning..and you are more than welcome in the Great Southern Land.. eat plenty of Vegemite it does wonders.. regardless of what Devangy says.. doesn't know what he is missing..puts a hop in every step...🦘🦘🦘🦘

PhD Quiet
3  shona1    4 weeks ago

Morning...with the announcement the Princess of Wales has cancer it just shows how your life can change in the blink of an eye..

Don't take each day for granted, nothing is a given and make the most of each day you walk this earth..☀️☀️


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