Can bacteria in the lungs help treat and diagnose lung cancer?
Experts used to think that healthy lung tissue is a sterile, microbe-free environment. However, recent advances in genome sequencing technology have shown that this is not the case.
The latest research suggests that the community of bacteria, fungi, and viruses that live in the lungs, known as the lung microbiome, has links with several respiratory conditions.
These conditions include chronic obstructive lung disease (COPD), asthma, and cystic fibrosis. In addition, the microbiomes in the gut, mouth, and lungs may interact to cause lung disease.
Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related deaths worldwide. This is mainly because individuals have few symptoms in the early stages, which means that around 75% of cases are advanced when doctors diagnose them.
Treatment options for advanced lung cancer are limited, and the prognosis is poor. In the United States alone, around 130,000 people are likely to die from the condition in 2022. Therefore, early detection and improved treatments for lung cancer are becoming increasingly urgent.
The communities of microbes that live in the lungs, mouth, and gut appear to interact. This may happen directly through the dispersion of mucus and through respiratory and digestive processes, say the researchers, or it may happen indirectly via immune factors and metabolic products in the bloodstream.
Research suggests that these modes of communication may allow unfriendly gut microbes to play a role in lung conditions, such as COPD, asthma, cystic fibrosis, and lung cancer.
In addition, a study found that people with lung cancer had more oral bacteria in their lungs than the participants in the control group. The study associates the presence of the bacteria with increased activity in cancer signaling pathways.
How these interactions work remains elusive. However, possible treatments, which include probiotics, special diets, and fecal microbiota transplants from healthy individuals, remain at a very early stage of development.
Moreover, the authors note that taking direct samples from the lungs involves technical and ethical challenges. This is not the case with the gut microbiota, which is relatively easy to study using fecal samples.
Researchers write that, as a result, most studies of the lung microbiota rely on nasal secretions, saliva, sputum, and a diagnostic test that involves flushing fluid through a small part of the lung. Experts call this bronchoalveolar lavage.
There are several ways in which bacteria could cause lung cancer.
For example, damage to the mucous lining of the lung that is not repaired quickly could upset the balance of microbes and provoke inflammation, potentially leading to cancer over time.
Older research suggests that bacteria in the lungs could trigger inflammation, which in turn may lead to the development of lung cancer.
Alternatively, toxins or metabolites that bacteria produce could directly damage human DNA.
On the plus side, the researchers write that there is “inestimable” potential to enhance different treatments for lung cancer, including radiation therapy, chemotherapy, surgery, and immunotherapy.
However, many more studies and clinical trials will be needed to determine whether modulating the gut microbiota can improve responses to treatment for lung cancer.
Kingsland, James. “Lung Cancer: A Role for the Lung Microbiome?” Medical News Today, MediLexicon International, 21 Mar. 2022, https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/can-bacteria-in-the-lungs-help-treat-and-diagnose-lung-cancer.
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