Toxic Bacteria Devours Tumors With Precision

By Carl Engelking | August 13, 2014 1:26 pm
Hematoxylin and eosin stain of a C.novyi-NT treated dog tumor. Lighter pink areas areas denote tumor necrosis next to areas with viable tumor cells. Black patches are calcified areas of tissue. (Credit: David L. Huso and Baktiar Karim of the Johns Hopkins Department of Pathology.)

A stained dog tumor treated with the bacterium. Lighter pink areas areas denote tumor death. Credit: David L. Huso and Baktiar Karim of the Johns Hopkins Department of Pathology

A bacterium found in soil that can cause flesh-ravaging infections in its natural state has been converted — with a few genetic tweaks — into a precise tumor assassin.

Researchers from the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center excised the toxin-producing gene from the bacterium Clostridium novyi, which, in its natural form, can be fatal when introduced to the bloodstream. They injected spores of the modified bacteria directly into tumors of mice, dogs and ultimately a human patient. In all three cases the spores germinated and released enzymes that ate the tumor from the inside out, resulting in either a significant reduction in tumor size, or complete eradication, without damaging healthy tissues.

Scientists say that with this proof of concept the prospects for bacterial injection therapy, as a treatment in combination with anti-cancer drugs, has vastly improved.

Fighting Infection with Infection

The C. novyi bacterium was of special interest because it only thrives in oxygen-depleted environments, making it ideal for attacking oxygen-starved cells in a tumor. Crucially, the bacterial spores don’t germinate in healthy, oxygen-rich tissues so their destructive power is easily contained.

Researchers started their experiment by implanting aggressive brain tumors in rats, then treating them with an injection of C. novyi spores. Within 48 hours the spores killed tumor cells while sparing healthy cells micrometers away. Rats treated with spores lived an average of 33 days after the tumor was implanted, compared to 18 days for untreated rats.

Researchers then tested their treatment on dogs, because canine tumors are almost genetically identical to human tumors. They treated 16 dogs who had naturally occurring tumors with the spores, and six of the 16 experienced significant reductions in their tumor size. Three dogs’ tumors were completely eradicated. After this success, scientists decided to attempt the therapy on a human.

The Human Trial

The first patient to receive this novel therapy was a 53-year-old woman who was diagnosed in 2006 with abdominal cancer, which had since spread throughout her body. Researchers targeted a tumor on her shoulder, and injected a treatment of the spores into her tumor.

The treatment wasn’t a walk in the park: the patient experienced severe pain in the shoulder, plus a fever as her body battled the bacteria. Eventually, her tumor formed an abscess that needed to be drained of fluid and debris. Two months after treatment her tumor showed all the signs of defeat, without evidence of a persistent infection.

Results from her trial, however, are incomplete as she is still being monitored. Researchers published their findings this week in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

Toward the Future

Researchers say the path forward for C. novyi is pretty clear. First, they need to further test its safety and efficacy in humans. Second, they want to identify other anticancer drugs and therapies that can be administered separately, but in conjunction with the bacteria to improve outcomes.

It’s a small, but hopeful, victory in the war on cancer, courtesy of some very tiny soldiers.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, top posts
MORE ABOUT: cancer
  • Enopoletus Harding

    What happened to the other 10 dogs?

    • Alan Greenspan

      They didn’t say the 3 completely healed were from the 6 that experienced significant reductions and im not opening the we can presume 9 improved all together…leaving 7

      Anyways thats not important.. why use kardashians name? Because she has done so little to help the world but has such high tweets?

  • SouthernLadyNC

    It has been prophesied that the cure for many cancers will be discovered in this decade. Things are accelerating by leaps and bounds.

    • wooter


  • Agnes Debinski

    Sounds sensible to me as antibiotics are also generated from bacteria and according to microbiologists they are also produced in nature by bacteria in soil.

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  • Jesse (now known as Hammer).

    I was thinking what if they could take the flesh eating bacteria we read about, and genetically engineer it to go and eat the cancer cell versus the healthy tissue. The idea of a bacteria that would thrive in the oxygen depleted tumor cells, is what I was looking for. I did not know cancer cells where adverse to oxygen. This is the only solution to curing cancer. I had googled ” flesh eating bacteria genetically engineered to destroy cancer cells”. This is the what popped up, this website. My one qualm was how to limit the bacteria from destroying the surrounding good tissue. They have found the beginning of the solution. I would think combining this type of bacteria with a fungus of some sort will kill all the cancer in the body. The way of administrating the drup must be interveiniously to attack cancers inside the body. Perhaps the toxins contained in mushrooms, which has been genetically altered, might be a good path to take.

  • Megan

    Wow, this seems like a really good new treatment! Hopefully it will eventually save human lives.


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