International Cancer Microbiome Consortium

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Published: 21 Sep 2017
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Prof Julian Marchesi - Imperial College London, London, UK

Prof Julian Marchesi talks to ecancer at the Microbiome in Cancer and Beyond 2017 meeting about the International Cancer Microbiome Consortium and it's future goals.

The ICMC is a new idea which brings together stakeholders who are interested to discuss how the microbiomes in the human body influence cancer. These discussions look at causes through to treatments of cancer from a microbial perspective, bringing together scientists from across the globe.

He highlights potential areas for future discussion, such as diet, and individual responses to cancer treatments due to baseline differences in the microbiome from patient to patient. 

The ICMC was an idea that came about about a year ago between a couple of us scientists, basic scientists, clinicians, with a simple idea of just trying to get together all the stakeholders who were interested in how bacteria, viruses and fungi in the human body influence cancer but at all stages of cancer, not just at the initiation of cancer but the progression of cancer and the treatment of cancer. So about a year ago we came up with this idea of inviting world leaders in their areas, from the States, from Hong Kong, from Europe, to start a process of discussing how we’re going to understand what the microbiome, as we call it, the bugs in the gut, what role they play in cancer and how we can utilise that to understand the disease. So today was really the first part of this whole process.

What was discussed today in the ICMC?

Today we were discussing, for example, how can we understand what the bacteria do in the gut in terms of treatment. Can we utilise that for prognosis? Can we understand what the bacteria do in terms of carcinogenesis, starting the disease? And if we can then does it allow us to actually manipulate it, change it, modify it in individuals? How do we modify it in individuals? So it was a very wide-ranging discussion went on today with very different stakeholders from industry all the way to oncologists, from surgeons all the way to basic scientists and microbiologists, bringing together this body of knowledge in trying to understand, look, we have bacteria in the human body, we know they’re important, what role do they play in cancer and how can we exploit it to understand how we can really treat cancer a lot better than we are doing at the moment?

What outputs could these sorts of discussions bring in the future?

It’s a very early field at the moment. The first thing we really want to do is what can we understand from looking at the bacteria, the types of bacteria, that people have and prevention of the disease. Because ultimately we don’t want to be at a stage where we’re treating the disease, we want to be at a stage where we’re preventing it starting, dropping the incidence of it to start with. So some of the discussions are ongoing about how diet interacts with the bacteria in your gut to drive the whole process of cancer initiation. There are some really, really good epidemiological studies that show that first generations of individuals moving from areas with very low levels of cancer where they move into a diet that’s maybe Westernised, high in fat, high in refined sugars, their cancer rate starts to really increase. So it can’t be genetics, so there must be some other environmental factor that’s driving this. Today one of the discussions was, well, diet is important but how does that interact with the bacteria in the gut to then drive cancer? So if you can understand the dietary components, the microbes that are reacting to it, then you have two parts of the equation that can actually hopefully solve the third part which is reducing the cancer initiation.

Is there anything else notable that these talks have brought to the table?

Yes, another really important bit is going towards the other end. A lot of the time as scientists we see the cancer patients turning up at my colleagues’ clinic, for example, and that’s too late then, they’ve already got the cancer. But now what we’re realising is how you respond to some of these cancer drugs can be driven by the types of microbes you have in your gut. It’s not just cancer drugs, it’s drugs for inflammatory bowel disease, it’s drugs for heart disease. We have a much better understanding that the types of organisms that you have resident in you can actually determine how you respond to these drugs. So if you don’t have the right organisms in your gut can we give them to you? If you have the wrong organisms in your gut can we remove them, ultimately to just improve your cancer treatment and your response to the drugs.