Scientists in Ontario and Quebec have completed a world-first study which shows that micro organisms found in the guts of healthy donors can help treat patients with advanced skin cancer.
Getting that healthy gut flora into a patient requires them to swallow between 30 and 40 pills of frozen human feces that came from healthy donors screened for pathogens.
“They’re tasteless. They have no smell. They’re not unsightly. There’s nothing. You just have to get past thinking it might be kind of gross,” said Dr. Michael Silverman, chair of Infectious Diseases at Western University in London, Ont and one of the researchers.
Their study, published Thursday in Nature Medicine, brought together scientists from London’s Lawson Health Research Institute and Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital and the Center Hospitalier de l’Université de Montréal.
The study showed that the treatment was safe and it also dramatically increased a patient’s chances of responding to cancer treatment, Silverman said.
The process is called a fecal microbiota transplant (FMT) and while it’s been used to treat C. difficile infections, Silverman said it’s never been used to help treat cancer patients before.
Immunotherapy is currently the only treatment for advanced melanoma and it comes with significant risks for the patient.
“Normally, the treatment is risky because the drugs patients take have the capacity to activate all the immune system and those cells can go and target different healthy organs instead of the tumors,” said Dr. Saman Maleki, an immuno-oncology researcher and the senior investigator on the study.
He said taking the pills made the treatment significantly more effective in targeting only the tumors.
“We saw about 65 per cent of the patients who went on the treatment responded to therapy and that also includes four patients whose cancer melted away and wasn’t detectable at all,” said Dr. Maleki.
Normally only between 30 to 40 per cent of melanoma patients responded to immunotherapy and while the trial only had a sample size of 20 patients, he was encouraged by the results.
“We have to do more, bigger, bigger studies with randomized trials which can be helpful to change the future of how we treat cancer patients.”
The positive findings are allowing the team to do more research. Silverman said the Lawson Health Research Institute is currently conducting a study looking at patients with kidney cancer in London.
He also said they are in partnership with colleagues in Montreal looking at lung cancer.
“We are hoping to do a study with pancreatic cancer. So it’s very exciting in terms of if this could be a new direction in cancer therapy. It’s still very preliminary, but we’re very pleased with the findings.”
While the process of swallowing feces might sound strange, evidence shows that the flora in our guts is an important factor in how our immune system works, Silverman said.
“There’s all these millions of other genes within bacteria that are living in our guts that are very important in our metabolism and they’re also important in the workings of our immune system,” he said.