As scientists catalog the microbial life living inside our gut, on our skin and in every nook and cranny of our body, disease researchers are hoping to use this collection of creatures — our microbiome — to find better ways to prevent, detect and treat cancer.
We talked with researchers at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center who are combining data science and extraordinary laboratory tools to find surprising connections between cancer, our immune system and the communities of microbes that inhabit us.
The projects below are just a sampling of the ways Fred Hutch scientists are exploring how our immune system can team with our microbiome to fight cancer and other life-threatening diseases.
An environment that nurtures immune cells
Transplant physician Dr. Kate Markey, a newly appointed assistant professor at Fred Hutch, has been studying how the gut microbiome interacts with the immune system, and in particular how that might affect the outcome of bone marrow and blood stem cell transplantation.
It is well-established that transplant patients who carry a wide variety of bacterial species in their guts tend to do better after transplant than those who harbor a more homogenous microbial environment. Markey is trying to find out why.
These more fortunate patients experience fewer relapses of their blood cancers and have a lower risk of infections and graft-vs.-host disease, or GVHD. The latter is a common complication of bone marrow transplantation where immune cells from a donor may sometimes attack — as foreign — healthy tissues in the cancer patient.
It can be debilitating and, in some instances, life-threatening to transplant recipients.
In her previous position at New York’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Markey and her team carried out research suggesting the advantage those patients have may lie in a relationship between diverse gut microbes and certain types of circulating immune cells known to congregate in tissues lining the gastrointestinal tract.
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