The Royal Marsden Research

Q&A: Microbiome

Professor David Cunningham, Consultant Medical Oncologist, Head of the Gastrointestinal Unit and Director of Clinical Research, explains why researchers are increasingly looking at the role of the gut microbiome in gastrointestinal cancers

Professor David Cunningham

In the future, we could potentially alter the microbiome to reduce the risk of colorectal cancer occurring

What is the gut microbiome?

The human body has trillions of microbes such as bacteria, fungi and viruses, which are collectively known as the microbiome and mainly live in our gastrointestinal tract. Our microbiome affects our digestion, immune system, mood and cognitive function.

Why are researchers interested in this?

Colorectal cancer is the fourth most common cancer in the UK, with more than half of all cases linked to major lifestyle and other risk factors, such as diet and body weight. There is evidence to suggest that an imbalance in the gut microbiome may have a role in the development of colorectal cancer. In the future, we could potentially alter the microbiome to reduce the risk of this cancer occurring. Learning more about the microbiome could also help facilitate diagnosis and improve treatment options for patients, with fewer side effects.

What is The Royal Marsden doing?

While this is a really exciting area of work with enormous potential, microbiome science is very complex and a lot more research is needed. The Royal Marsden is working collaboratively with a multidisciplinary team of experts from Imperial College Academic Health Science Centre, with the aim of rapidly translating research discoveries into medical advances.

How might the microbiome influence anti-cancer treatment?

Changing the microbiome could influence the response to some anti-cancer agents. For example, transplanting the microbiome from the gastrointestinal tract of responding tumour models into a non-responding model may increase the sensitivity of tumours to immunotherapy treatment. We think this may be because a change in the microbiome can influence the inflammatory response, which are the same cells involved in successful immunotherapy.