Presence and amount of gut bacteria can predict how fast pancreatic cancer cells grow

Pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma, or PDA, is the most common and by far the most lethal form of pancreatic cancer. Pancreapedia reports that it is extremely aggressive, and for most patients their only hope of survival hinges on the total surgical removal of the tumor. Unfortunately, such tumors cannot be removed in upwards of 90 percent of cases, making the prognosis for PDA patients “strikingly poor.” PDA usually proves fatal within two years of diagnosis.

Now, a study by researchers from NYU’s School of Medicine and College of Dentistry, published online in the journal Cancer Discovery, provides a glimmer of hope for PDA patients.

Science Daily reported recently on the research team’s discovery that populations of certain types of bacteria – including groups of species called actinobacteria, proteobacteria and fusobacteria – increase more than 1000-fold in PDA patients. This increase suppresses the immune function needed to kill cancer cells, leaving the body helpless against the swift growth of this aggressive form of cancer.

The team found that in PDA patients, these pathogenic bacteria migrate to the pancreas via the pancreatic duct, where they promptly emit cellular components that interfere with the immune system’s ability to destroy the cancer cells. This promotes swift tumor growth.

Science Daily reported:

[T]he study found that removing bacteria from the gut and pancreas by treating mice with antibiotics slowed cancer growth and reprogrammed immune cells to again “take notice” of cancer cells. Oral antibiotics also increased roughly threefold the efficacy of checkpoint inhibitors, a form of immunotherapy that had previously failed in pancreatic cancer clinical trials, to bring about a strong anti-tumor shift in immunity.

George Miller, the study’s senior co-author, noted that the research found that these pathogenic bacteria physically change the immune environment around cancer cells, allowing them to grow more quickly than in other patients with the same disease, who do not exhibit an increased number of such bacteria.

“Our results have implications for understanding immune-suppression in pancreatic cancer and its reversal in the clinic,” explained senior co-author Deepak Saxena. “Studies already underway in our labs seek to confirm the bacterial species most able to shut down the immune reaction to cancer cells, setting the stage for new bacteria-based diagnostic tests, combinations of antibiotics and immunotherapies, and perhaps for probiotics that prevent cancer in high-risk patients.”

Though this exciting study provides real hope for PDA patients, there is need for caution. While it is true that antibiotics destroy pathogenic, or “bad” bacteria, Dr. Amy Myers explains that they pass through your gut “like a tsunami, destroying everything in their path.”

Unfortunately, antibiotics cannot differentiate between good bacteria – vital to the digestive, immune and metabolic functioning of the body – and bad bacteria. Destroying the good along with the bad can have detrimental long-term effects. And since the destruction of good bacteria inhibits immune function – the very thing the researchers were trying to restore – antibiotics are not the best possible way to improve the balance of the gut’s microbiome. (Related: Scientists warn that many pharma drugs destroy our gut microbiome, causing us to be more vulnerable to disease.)

The healthier, safer solution to destroying bad bacteria and ensuring that good bacteria thrive is to make the switch to the right diet, which would include loads of fermented probiotic foods like yogurt with live cultures, kimchi, pickles, sauerkraut and miso soup. Or, if consuming these foods seems too difficult to you, a high quality, live probiotic supplement is vital.

It is also important to cut out the types of foods which feed pathogenic bacteria, particularly sugar and processed carbohydrates like bread, rice and pasta.

Charles Gant, M.D., Ph.D., physician and internationally known authority on integrative medicine, also stresses that there is a direct link between stress and the overproduction of “bad” bacteria.

The knowledge obtained by the researchers in the NYU study is incredibly powerful. Now that we know the link between bad bacteria and PDA we can all take steps to avoid this dangerous disease by carefully maintaining the balance of our gut bacteria. Knowledge is power, and prevention is always better than cure.

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