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Masonic Cancer Center at U of M Goes All-In on Booming Microbiome Research Field

A new 13-member research team will analyze the relationship between gut bacteria and colon cancer.

Masonic Cancer Center at U of M Goes All-In on Booming Microbiome Research Field

The connection between the microbes and bacteria living in the human gastrointestinal tract and diseases such as cancer is still a mysterious one, but researchers are increasingly finding evidence that such a connection is real. In fact, exploring the relationship between the “gut microbiome” and cancer has become one of the hotter areas of private biotech investment.

Now, with new possibilities of treating cancer through the human microbiome quickly emerging, the Masonic Cancer Center at the University of Minnesota is ramping up its own commitment to the booming field with the establishment of a team of 13 faculty members who will “study the role of the microorganisms as a cause of cancer and a major influence on the success of cancer therapy.”

The new Masonic Center microbiome team is being funded by a grant for an unspecified amount raised by the Chainbreaker charity bike ride, which held its inaugural event last year, the U of M Medical School announced.

The cancer-microbiome connection is causing a major stir in both the research and investment worlds. The research community, for instance, is clearly interested, evidenced by the fact that between 2005 and 2015 the number of published articles on the topic jumped by nearly 2,000 percent, according to the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy.

Private investments from healthcare funders have also been pouring into the microbiome immuno-oncology space, including corporate funding from pharma giants such as Bristol-Myers Squibb and Roche. Locally, the Mayo Clinic has also emerged as a prominent venture capital player in microbiome-related startups. Among the those it has funded are Evelo Biosciences and Second Genome.

Some of the latest research indicates that “causal” links between certain types of gut microbes and some cancers do indeed exist. For instance, the two bacteria most commonly associated with cancer are H. pylori and Fusobacterium nucleatum. They have been found to “drive” cancer through the production of certain compounds, promoting inflammation and “downregulating” the body’s natural killer (NK) and T-Cell immune responses.

Because it seems increasingly likely these bacteria may increase inflammation, they are thought to boost the overall risk of carcinogenesis, while also releasing molecular toxins which can accelerate the spread of cancer.

It has also been found that some cancers appear to be critically dependent on their host’s microbiome to continue to resist and evade the immune system, such as when patients are treated with antibiotics. 

These discoveries, meanwhile, are coming at the same time as the arrival of next-generation genomic sequencing technology, which has given researchers a valuable new tool to explore gut microbiomes and closely observe the metabolomic relationships between them and cancer. 

Now add the Masonic Cancer Center to the list of major cancer research institutes going all-in on probing the microbiome-cancer connection. The team will be co-led by Timothy Starr, an assistant professor of obstetrics, gynecology and women's health, and Dr. Alexander Khoruts, a medical professor and prominent U of M gastroenterologist.

Dr. Jakub Tolar, dean of the U’s medical school, said their contingent of 13 researchers will focus on the role of the gut microbiome both on colon cancer development and on the outcome of bone marrow stem cell transplantation, dovetailing with the Masonic Center’s existing research strengths. Their mission will be to clarify how the microbiome influences these cancer outcomes with a goal of “shifting the current paradigms” of cancer care in both diagnostics and treatments.

In addition to the research projects, the Starr-Khoruts team will also establish a “University of Minnesota Microbiome Analytics Core” comprised of computational scientists who will be able to rapidly analyze the bio-samples as well as the “vast quantities of data” generated by the microbiome research. This new resource, the Medical School says, “will be available to all researchers at the U of M and become a center of excellence.”

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