If there is a microbial cause for cancers, and especially if certain microbes disable the human immune system in some way, then using other microbes to trigger the body’s immune system makes sense.
In the 1890s, a New York surgeon named William Coley tested a radical cancer treatment. He took a hypodermic needle teeming with bacteria and plunged it into the flesh of patients.
After suffering through weeks of chills and fevers, many showed significant regression of their tumors, but even Coley himself could not explain the phenomenon.
His experiments were sparked by the observation that certain cancer patients improved after contracting infections. One patient experienced regression in a tumor in her arm after developing Saint Anthony’s fire, a streptococcus skin infection.
Doctors at the time considered Coley’s bacterial mixtures to be more black magic than medicine, and with the advent of radiation therapy, the well-meaning doctor was soon consigned to the annals of quackery.
But today, some scientists think Coley had it right: Germs can teach our bodies how to fight back against tumors. Dr. John Timmerman, a cancer immunotherapy expert at UCLA‘s Jonsson Cancer Center, says this revolution has produced “the most exciting sets of compounds in cancer immunology.”
These scientists have not yet proved their case. But new studies are revealing that certain cancers may be reduced by exposure to disease-causing bacteria and viruses, and pharmaceutical companies are testing anticancer treatments that capitalize on the concept by using bacterial elements to boost the body’s natural immunity.
The studies also imply that our cleaner, infection-free lifestyles may be contributing to the rise in certain cancers over the last 50 years, scientists say, because they make the immune system weaker or less mature. Germs cause disease but may also fortify the body, a notion summed up in a 2006 report by a team of Canadian researchers as “whatever does not kill me makes me stronger.”
Almost a century after Coley, in the 1980s, dermatologists began noticing that patients with severe acne, which is caused by another type of bacterium, have reduced rates of skin cancer, lymphoma and leukemia. According to a paper by Dr. Mohammad Namazi at the Shiraz University of Medical Sciences in Iran, studies showed that these bacteria, when injected into animals, appear to stimulate the immune system and shrink tumors.
More recent evidence for this phenomenon comes from studies on cotton and livestock workers, who are constantly breathing endotoxins, a component of bacterial cell walls that causes swelling of lung tissue.
In reports published in the last two years, Harvey Checkoway, a University of Washington epidemiologist, has found that female cotton workers in Shanghai have a 40% to 60% lower risk of lung, breast, and pancreas cancer than other factory workers.
Other recent studies by Giuseppe Mastrangelo at the University of Padua in Italy found that dairy farmers exposed to high levels of manure dust are up to five times less likely to develop lung cancer than their colleagues who work in open fields. …
The scientists used the Clostridium novyi (C. novyi-NT) bacterium to produce a potent and precisely targeted response against tumors in rats, pet dogs, and a human patient. The microbe is commonly found in soil. An important characteristic of the microbe is that it thrives only in oxygen-poor environments, which made it a good candidate to target and destroy oxygen-deprived cells in tumor cores, which are difficult to attack with radiation and chemotherapy.
To use the microbe in the study as a therapeutic, the Johns Hopkins team removed one of the Clostridium novyi’s toxin-producing genes. They then directly injected the microbe spores into solid tumors in dogs. Three of the six tumors completely disappeared while tumors shrank in the others. The dogs experienced a bacterial infection while undergoing the treatment.
A human patient with cancer of the abdomen that had spread to other parts of her body also received the therapy to treat a metastatic tumor in her arm. The scientists injected the bacteria spores directly into the tumor. Similar to the animals, the patient experienced fever and severe pain in the area while her immune system responded to the infection. The scientists reported that afterwards, the tumor shrank significantly in and around her arm bone. However, other tumors continued to grow elsewhere in her body.