It’s recently been in the news that a study run by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the University of California at San Diego (UCSD) have used a harmless strain of engineered E. coli bacteria to help detect cancer by colonising tumours in mice that spread to the liver from other organs.

e-coli bacteria
The bacteria E.Coli

Many types of cancer, especially colon and pancreatic cancer can metastasise and spread from the primary tumour to the liver. Whether or not the cancer has metastasised to the liver can have an impact on the decision as to how to treat the cancer. Liver metastasis can be treated but this can also depend on how early they are detected. The earlier the detection, the higher the likelihood of a successful treatment. However tumours in the liver are not always easily seen by traditional imaging methods such as CT scans and Magnetic resonance imaging. Therefore the researchers in this study focussed on the liver to see if there was a way of detecting metastasis early on.

In this study, reprogrammed E. coli bacteria were given orally to mice with colon cancer to produce a luminescent signal that could be detected using a urine test. The results of this showed that around 90 percent of metastatic tumours were colonised by the bacteria. And in addition it did this without causing any harmful side effects.

"We realized that if we gave a probiotic, we weren't going to be able to get bacteria concentrations high enough to colonize the tumours all over the body, but we hypothesized that if we had tumours in the liver they would get the highest dose from an oral delivery" said Bhatia, one of the researchers. 

This allowed the team to develop a way of specialising in diagnosing liver tumours.  And whilst these particular results only apply to cancers that have spread to the liver, it is certainly a positive step in the right direction for successful cancer treatments.

"These bacteria could be engineered to cause genetic disruption of cancer cell function, deliver drugs, or reactivate the immune system," added Andrea Califano from Columbia University, who was not involved in the research. He added that this study is "seminal and thought-provoking in terms of clearing a new path for investigating what can be done for early detection of cancer”

This is an interesting study and a fascinating look at the broadening approaches to the diagnosis of cancer. It also expands the use of 'probiotics'.  It might be interesting to note that the study's definition of a 'probiotic' is broader than ours would be, and important to mention on this note that our probiotics are in no way engineered or genetically modified. Read this article to find out more about the strains in our probiotics.

Tal Danino, Arthur Prindle, Gabriel A. Kwong, Matthew Skalak, Howard Li, Kaitlin Allen, Jeff Hasty, and Sangeeta N. Bhatia. (2015) Programmable probiotics for detection of cancer in urine Science Translation Medicine 7:289ra84

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