Since the NIH’s Human Microbiome Project was launched 10 years ago, scientists have been honing in on the phenomenon of gut bacteria.
Over 25,000 studies have been published on gut bacteria and the implications on health and disease. Just this month, a $3.1 million NIH grant will help study how gut bacteria play a role in the development of diabetes.
The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Public Health is the recipient. Lead investigator Craig Hanis has been researching possible explanations for the unusually high rates of diabetes among Mexican-Americans in Starr County, Texas residents since 1981.
In this new study, his team will examine how bacteria in the gut, called the microbiome, may play a role in contributing to the development of diabetes.
The significance of gut bacteria
Whereas for centuries scientists have known a limited number of “bad” bacteria that succumb to antibiotics, DNA sequencing and the Human Genome Project have made it possible to study a vast world of germs which dwarfs our previous knowledge, explains Dr. Mark McKenna.
Proper bacterial balance is vital to healthy immune function, providing appropriate protection against potential infections and playing a critical role in the digestion and absorption of food and nutrients. The interaction of multiple strains of bacteria is an essential element in health and well-being.
Gut bacteria have been linked to a very wide range of medical diagnoses, ranging from depression cancer, neurological diseases like Parkinson’s, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, and multiple sclerosis.
Two more studies deserve attention, both groundbreaking in their own right.
Bacteria linked with breast cancer
A research study from the Cleveland Clinic goes beyond gut bacteria – examining bacteria residing inside breast tissue. Their findings point to probiotics and antibiotics as cancer preventives, reports Dr. Mark McKenna.
The researchers have examined the bacterial makeup of breast tissue in women with breast cancer and found that it has insufficient levels of a certain bacterial genus called Methylobacterium. They further report that their discovery implies that breast cancer could be prevented with probiotics or antibiotics. Their study was published in the journal Oncotarget.
In previous studies, the link between gut microbiota and breast cancer has been examined. These studies suggested that gut microbes may regulate estrogen levels, leading to estrogen-receptor positive breast cancer.
But in this study, researchers examined the microbiome residing in the breast tissue of breast cancer patients. They uncovered the bacterial composition in the breast tissue, and their findings could indeed lead to new preventive treatments for breast cancer.
The scientists examined the breast tissue from 78 women – 57 with invasive breast cancer who had a mastectomy, and 21 cancer-free women who had cosmetic breast surgery. Researchers also studied the women’s urinary and oral bacteria.
Breast cancer patients had considerably lower levels of a bacterial genus called Methylobacterium, they report. Those women also had higher levels of gram-positive bacteria in urine, including Staphylococcus, Corynebacterium, Propionibacteriaceae, and Actinomyces.
While more research is needed, this is “one of the largest studies to examine the microbiome in human breast cancer patients,” write the authors.
“To my knowledge, this is the first study to examine both breast tissue and distant sites of the body for bacterial differences in breast cancer […] Our hope is to find a biomarker that would help us diagnose breast cancer quickly and easily,” says Dr. Charis Eng.
“In our wildest dreams,” he adds, “we hope we can use microbiomics right before breast cancer forms and then prevent cancer with probiotics or antibiotics.”
“If we can target specific pro-cancer bacteria,” adds Dr. Grobmyer, “we may be able to make the environment less hospitable to cancer and enhance existing treatments. Larger studies are needed,” he says, “but this work is a solid first step in better understanding the significant role of bacterial imbalances in breast cancer.”
Dr. Charis Eng, chair of the Cleveland Clinic’s Genomic Medicine Institute in Ohio, led the study with Dr. Stephen Grobmyer, director of Breast Services at the Cleveland Clinic. Hannah Wang, a researcher at the Cleveland Clinic’s Lerner Research Institute of the Genomic Medicine Institute, is the first author of the new study.
Both co-senior authors are currently working with other researchers on using nanotechnology to target specific bacteria involved in breast cancer. Future nanotechnology-based treatments could deliver antibiotics straight to the relevant bacteria.
Healthy gut tied to long life
A group of Canadian and Chinese researchers have found evidence to suggest that a healthy gut could be linked to healthy aging, explains Dr. Mark McKenna
Carried out by researchers from Canada and China, the research is one of the largest microbiota studies conducted in humans, looking at a cohort of more than 1,000 Chinese participants. Researchers studied the gut bacteria in individuals between ages 3 and 100 years old, all self-reported as being “extremely healthy” with no known health problems and no family history of disease.
The team found a pattern of good health and microbes in the intestine, reporting that the overall microbiota composition of the healthy elderly group was similar to that of people decades younger, with little difference between the gut microbiota of those age 30 to those age over 100.
While they did not find cause and effect, they did set up the question – if you stay active and eat well, will you age better? Or will your gut bacteria predict how you will age? And can food and probiotics be used to improve biomarkers of health?
About Dr. Mark McKenna
- Dr. Mark McKenna, MD, MBA is a Medical Doctor licensed in Surgery and Medicine by the Georgia and Florida State Board of Medical Examiners. Dr. McKenna, originally from New Orleans, LA, is a graduate of Tulane University Medical School.
After completing his medical training he began to practice medicine with his father while simultaneously launching McKenna Venture Investments, a boutique real estate development firm. Over the years McKenna went on to acquire/launch Universal Mortgage Lending and Uptown Title, Inc. This portfolio of companies would grow to over 50 employees and offered turnkey design-build, finance, and real estate closing services.
He currently resides in Atlanta, GA, and is in the process of launching OVME a consumer facing, technology enabled, medical aesthetic company that is reinventing elective healthcare.