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Exploring How The Microbiome Affects Cancer - And Vice Versa

How well do you know your microbiome? Microbiomes are composed of the trillions of microbes living in our bodies, most of which inhabit our digestive system. Microbes are microscopic organisms, including (but not limited to) bacteria, viruses and fungi. Some help with digestion; some can make us sick; others stimulate the immune system and help keep us healthy. Most are harmless.

Your microbiome changes throughout your life. As a baby, you pick up some microbes from your mom. You get others from the food you eat, the type of place you live in, even your pets. Each one is highly personalized. Recently, we have come to understand that our microbiome can have profound impact on the activity of our immune system. This observation has led Roswell Park clinical and basic researchers to begin studies manipulating the microbiome to further enhance immunotherapies for cancer. Further insight into the complex interaction between our microbiome, our health and fighting off cancer will lead us to new and novel approaches.

Your Gifts Are Helping Researchers Connect The Dots

Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center already has a number of ongoing projects in this area of research. To enhance and share our research in the field of microbiome science, the Alliance Foundation has partnered with Roswell Park scientists to unify our approach. The collection and analysis of microbiome data from the diverse research projects funded through the Alliance Foundation will be centralized and available for the Roswell Park community to enhance our understanding of the microbiome and how it interacts with other immune therapies, as well as to further explore how the microbiome can be manipulated to help patients.

This March, donations to the Roswell Park Alliance Foundation provided four pilot awards to explore different roles, influences and connections in this intriguing area. These studies are part of a larger microbiome initiative that is led by Brahm Segal, MD, Chair, Department of Internal Medicine; Susan McCann, PhD, RD, Department of Cancer Prevention and Control; and Emese Zsiros, MD, PhD, Department of Gynecologic Oncology.

Here Are Four New Projects and Their Lead Investigators

Grace Dy, MD, Chief of Thoracic Oncology, is leading a team investigating the effect of a particular targeted cancer therapy on the gut microbiome function and flora of patients with a specific kind of advanced non-small-cell lung cancer. They will also seek to determine how acquired resistance to a specific cancer treatment may be related to the gut microbiome.

Khurshid Guru, MD, Chair, Department of Urology, and Li Tang, MD, PhD, Department of Cancer Prevention and Control, are leading a study exploring the role of the urinary microbiome in bladder cancer. The traditional concept that the urinary tract is sterile has changed over the past five years. We are investigating the changes that occur to the bacteria that are normally present in urine; whether they can promote the development of cancer or affect tumor response to different therapeutic agents; and how lifestyle changes can affect them.

Fumito Ito, MD, PhD, Department of Surgical Oncology and the Center for
Immunotherapy, is heading a study exploring biomarkers — substances that give doctors measurable signs about how well a treatment is working. The team will explore whether changes in a particular biomarker correlate with the gut microbiome composition in patients who respond to the immunotherapy called checkpoint inhibitors, which block proteins that stop the immune system from attacking cancer cells. This could help us better monitor how well treatment is working in a patient and could lead to innovative new approaches in cancer immunotherapy.

A team led by Dr. Zsiros will study how the composition of the gut microbiome affects response to immune checkpoint inhibitors in patients with epithelial ovarian cancer. The team will also study how manipulating the composition of the gut microbiome could improve the responses to immunotherapeutic agents in cancer patients.