Although screenings and treatments have improved, colon cancer remains the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States. To improve that statistic, a researcher at the Stephenson Cancer Center at OU Medicine has been awarded a $2.3 million grant to look at the disease through an innovative lens: how bacteria in the colon may trigger the development of cancer.
Mark M. Huycke, M.D., is the lead investigator for the grant, awarded by the National Cancer Institute. The project was funded by the NCI’s “chemoprevention” section for its potential in preventing colon cancer through the use of probiotics.
Huycke and his team are delving into the vast world of the human microbiome – the trillions of bacteria, fungi, parasites and viruses that live inside each human being. In this project, he is studying the mechanisms by which bacteria in the colon may initiate cancer. This type of research has come to the fore only in more recent years, as investigators have begun to understand more of the positive and negative actions of bacteria.
“Humans are colonized with an ecology of bacteria, and they play a huge role in health and disease,” he said. “Through our research, we have learned that there are certain properties of bacteria that allow them to promote cancer.”
Huycke is using one particular bacteria – Enterococcus faecalis – as a model for his research. That bacteria isn’t necessarily the one that causes colon cancer, but it allows him to study the mechanisms that facilitate the beginning of cancer.
“We’re using this bacteria because we know how it works, but we’re actually studying one specific mechanism by which bacteria trigger an immune response,” he said. “It’s that immune response that can lead to the development of cancer.”
Although the work is in its early stages, the ultimate goal is to develop prevention strategies. One of the prevention tools Huycke will be testing is whether probiotics – considered good bacteria – can stop the triggering of the immune response.
Working toward a new method of preventing colon cancer is important because screening strategies don’t always work. One of the main types of screenings, the colonoscopy, isn’t much fun, is expensive and doesn’t always catch precancerous lesions, he said.
Huycke was among the earliest researchers studying the link between bacteria and colon cancer. He began his career as an infectious diseases physician, and his research focused on how bacteria promote infection in hospitalized patients. However, he discovered some unusual characteristics of bacteria that pointed to cancer instead of infections. So he shifted his research accordingly.
Today, he no longer sees patients, but his experience in treating disease benefits him as he shifts his focus solely to research.
“Part of the reason I went into academic medicine was to be able to conduct research to better understand how disease processes develop,” he said. “Researchers in this field have made good progress over the past 20 years. Before then, we didn’t have the technology available to do the sophisticated tests that we are able to do now. What we’re finding out is that bacteria’s link to cancer is indeed very complicated. But I think there are some fundamental underlying mechanisms that we can figure out that will allow us to grapple with the complexity of it.”