Aug. 14, 2020

UCalgary researchers discover the microbiome’s role in attacking cancerous tumours

Findings show how our gut bacteria can enhance immunotherapy to battle different forms of cancer

Researchers with the Snyder Institute for Chronic Diseases at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM) have discovered which gut bacteria help our immune system battle cancerous tumours and how they do it. The discovery may provide a new understanding of why immunotherapy, a treatment for cancer that helps amplify the body’s immune response, works in some cases, but not others.

The findings, published in Science, show combining immunotherapy with specific microbial therapy boosts the ability of the immune system to recognize and attack cancer cells in some melanoma, bladder and colorectal cancers.

Dr. Kathy McCoy, PhD, is a leading expert on the body’s relationship with the microbiome. She and her team are focused on harnessing the power of the microbiome to improve health and treat diseases. McCoy says to harness and direct that power scientists need to better understand the role bacteria play in regulating the immune system.

Recent studies have provided strong evidence that gut microbiota can positively affect anti-tumour immunity and improve the effectiveness of immunotherapy in treating certain cancers, yet how the bacteria were able to do this remained elusive.

“We’ve been able to build on that work by showing how certain bacteria enhance the ability of T-cells, the body’s immunity soldiers that attack and destroy cancerous cells,” says McCoy, director of the International Microbiome Centre at the University of Calgary and principal investigator on the study.

First, the researchers identified bacterial species that were associated with colorectal cancer tumours when treated with immunotherapy. Working with germ-free mice, they then introduced these specific bacteria along with immune checkpoint blockade, a type of cancer immunotherapy.

Research revealed that specific bacteria were essential to the immunotherapy working. The tumours shrank, drastically. For those subjects that did not receive the beneficial bacteria, the immunotherapy had no effect.

“We found that these bacteria produce a small molecule, called inosine,” says Dr. Lukas Mager, MD, PhD, senior postdoctoral researcher in the McCoy lab and first author on the study. “Inosine interacts directly with T-cells and together with immunotherapy, it improves the effectiveness of that treatment, in some cases destroying all the colorectal cancer cells.”

The researchers then validated the findings in both bladder cancer and melanoma. The next step in this work will be to study the finding in humans. The three beneficial bacteria associated with the tumours in mice have also been found in cancers in humans.

Lukas Mager and Kathy McCoy

Lukas Mager and Kathy McCoy have discovered how bacteria within our microbiome can help battle some forms of cancer.

Kelly Johnston, Cumming School of Medicine

“Identifying how microbes improve immunotherapy is crucial to designing therapies with anti-cancer properties, which may include microbials,” says McCoy. “The microbiome is an amazing collection of billions of bacteria that live within and around us every day. We are in the early stage of fully understanding how we can use this new knowledge to improve efficacy and safety of anti-cancer therapy and improve cancer patient survival and well-being.”

This research was supported by the Cumming Medical Research Fund, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Canadian Foundation for Innovation - John R. Evans Leaders Fund (CFI-JELF), and the Carole May Yates Memorial Endowment in Cancer Research fund through the Arnie Charbonneau Cancer Institute at the CSM. Lukas Mager was supported by the Early Postdoc Mobility Fellowship from the Swiss National Science Foundation.

The research was conducted in the International Microbiome Centre (IMC) at the University of Calgary.

The IMC is a translational research centre, designed to investigate the microbiome of humans, plants, animals and the physical environment. Together, world-class microbiome researchers, a highly specialized germ-free facility, and advanced technologies will spark groundbreaking discoveries that harness the healing power of the microbiome.

The IMC is supported by the UCalgary, the CSM, Western Economic Diversification (WED) and Alberta Economic Development and Trade (AEDT), Canada.

Infections, Inflammation and Chronic Diseases
The University of Calgary is uniquely positioned to find solutions to key global challenges. Through the research strategy for Infections, Inflammation, and Chronic Diseases in the Changing Environment (IICD), top scientists lead multidisciplinary teams to understand and prevent the complex factors that threaten our health and economies.

Kathy McCoy is a professor in the CSM’s Department of Physiology & Pharmacology and member of the Snyder Institute for Chronic Diseases. She is the director of the IMC and is also leading the  CIHR  funded pan-Canadian microbiome research core called IMPACTT — a “brain trust” of microbiome experts from across the country advancing microbiome research.