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Could scientists treat ovarian cancer by manipulating the microbiome?

Abigail Asangba, Ph.D.
Courtesy Mayo Clinic
Abigail Asangba, Ph.D.

There’s an emerging field of science about the human microbiome, or the communities of bacteria, fungi and viruses that live inside and on every person's body. Microbes are tiny, living organisms that help us do everything from digest food to fight off a virus, but some microbes can harm us. A new study shows there could even be a connection between some microbes and ovarian cancer.

Ovarian cancer is sometimes called the silent killer because it’s nearly impossible to detect early. Scientists at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota are trying to unlock a mystery of how to improve these odds.

“Because when patients are diagnosed early they have a higher chance of survival. And prognosis is so much better,” said Abigail Asangba, Ph.D., a microbiome researcher at the Mayo Clinic’s Center for Individualized Medicine and the lead author of the new study, published in Scientific Reports.

Asangba and other researchers set out to find out if there might be a way to detect ovarian cancer early by looking at a woman’s microbes in her body. This information may even tell doctors if that woman would have a better chance of survival with chemotherapy or an alternative type of treatment.

That science is years away, and researchers are still in the early stages of seeing if this would even be possible. But it is a promising glimmer of hope, said Asangba. “As a woman, it comes from a personal place of you want to do everything you can to be able to help.”

Marina Walther-Antonio, Ph.D. is a microbiome researcher within Mayo Clinic's Center for Individualized Medicine and another researcher who published the microbiome study. She said scientists are only beginning to understand the relationships between our health and microbe cells.

“We carry microbes since birth and until our death, and most of those microbes are beneficial to our health,” Walther-Antonio said. “They perform a lot of functions [like] helping us digest food, keeping us healthy, and [maintaining a] balance with our immune system. We know they’re there, and we know they’re associated with these cancers."

She said their research could one day help map treatment options for patients, to offer them options that are based on their unique microbiome. These types of alternative therapies, though years away, could extend the life expectancy for some patients. Compared with chemotherapy, which target human cells, scientists could one day instead target microbial cells inside our body, as a way of influencing the body’s ability to heal itself and fight the spread of cancer.

“It’s actually not hard to kill cancer. The problem is to keep the patient alive. That’s the difficulty. Because what’s toxic to cancer cells it’s very often toxic to you, as a person,” Walther-Antonio said.

The American Cancer Society estimates that about 13,000 women across the United States will die of ovarian cancer this year.

Roxy Todd is Radio IQ's New River Valley Bureau Chief.