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Investigators use salmonella to fight cancers of the gut

Color-enhanced scanning electron micrograph showing <em>Salmonella typhimurium</em> (pink) invading cultured human cells. (Image courtesy of Rocky Mountain Laboratories, NIAID, NIH)

It’s almost unfathomable that salmonella, the bacteria transmitted through food that sickens thousands of Americans each year, could actually help people feel better.

But researchers with the Masonic Cancer Center, University of Minnesota, believe that salmonella may be a valuable tool in the fight against cancer in organs surrounding the gut — such as the liver, spleen, and colon — since that’s where salmonella naturally infects the body.

So they’re turning salmonella into a weapon, allowing the bacteria to attack cancer cells in their natural environment.

Animal studies at the University have shown that salmonella can successfully control tumors in the gut. Now human clinical trials under way here also show promise.

“Many bacteria and viruses — even harmful ones — can be used to fight disease,” says Edward Greeno, M.D., the clinical study’s lead researcher.

For these investigations, Greeno’s colleague Daniel Saltzman, M.D., Ph.D., genetically modified a batch of salmonella and then added a molecule called Interleukin-2 (IL-2) that helps the body identify invaders. IL-2 made near tumors will identify cancerous cells as threats and trigger an immune response in that part of the body.

The immune system response called in by IL-2 and the salmonella itself create a two-pronged attack on the cancer.

The therapy is administered simply: it’s mixed with a few ounces of water and drunk.

“This probably won’t replace other ways of treating cancer such as chemotherapy and radiation,” Greeno says. “But it’s a promising area of study, and we hope it can be a potent tool in our battle against cancer. It also has potential to be a much cheaper and less toxic alternative to chemotherapy and radiation.”

The study is funded by the National Institutes of Health, the Masonic Cancer Center, and Botanic Oil Innovations.

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