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Gut Microbes Linked to Immunotherapy Response in Patients With Melanoma

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Key Points

  • Researchers discovered that patients whose cancer responded to immunotherapy treatment had more diversity in the types of bacteria found in their gut. They also found significant differences in the type of bacteria found in the gut of people whose cancer responded vs those who didn't.
  • There was no difference in the type of mouth bacteria between patients.
  • Adapting people's gut bacteria—such as by giving antibiotics, probiotics, or a fecal transplant before immunotherapy—could increase the benefits already achieved.

Patients with malignant melanoma are more likely to respond to immunotherapy treatment if they have greater diversity in their gut bacteria, according to new research presented by Wargo et al at the National Cancer Research Institute's (NCRI) Cancer Conference in Liverpool, United Kingdom.

Scientists at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center studied over 200 mouth and over 100 gut microbiome samples from patients with advanced melanoma.

Major Findings

Researchers discovered that patients whose cancer responded to immunotherapy treatment had more diversity in the types of bacteria found in their gut. They also found significant differences in the type of bacteria found in the gut of people whose cancer responded vs those who didn't. There was no difference in the type of mouth bacteria between patients.

Early studies in mice have shown that changing the type of bacteria that live in the gut can improve the response to immunotherapy, but this is one of the first studies to look at the link in patients.

This research suggests that adapting people's gut bacteria—such as giving antibiotics, probiotics, or a fecal transplant before immunotherapy—could increase the benefits already achieved with new immunotherapy drugs now being used to treat several different types of cancer. However, this needs to be tested further in clinical trials.

Study Implications

Lead researcher Jennifer Wargo, MD, MMSc, said, “Our research shows a really interesting link that may mean the immune system is aided by gut bacteria when responding to these drugs. Not all patients respond to immunotherapy drugs, and it's hard to know who will benefit from the treatment prior to it being given.”

She added, “The gut microbiome can be changed through a number of different strategies, so there is real potential here to modify the gut microbiome to boost an immunotherapy response.”

Pippa Corrie, MD, Chair of the NCRI's Skin Cancer Clinical Studies Group, said, “There is growing evidence that gut bacteria play a vital role in warding off disease, absorbing nutrients from the food we eat, and maintaining normal function of our immune systems.”

She continued, “Gut microbes have been shown to influence the role of conventional chemotherapy, so it's probably not surprising that they impact on response to new immunotherapies being used in the clinic. Manipulating the gut flora may be a new strategy to enhance activity of immunotherapy drugs, as well as to manage problematic toxicity in the future.”

The content in this post has not been reviewed by the American Society of Clinical Oncology, Inc. (ASCO®) and does not necessarily reflect the ideas and opinions of ASCO®.


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