University of Virginia researcher Melanie Rutkowski can envision a day when doctors prescribe a specific diet to prevent the spread of breast cancer. A day when doctors could identify women at high risk for breast tumors just by examining the bacteria in their guts.
And now the Susan G. Komen organization has awarded her $450,000 to fund pioneering research that could make that happen.
Over the next three years, the grant will let Rutkowski, of UVA’s School of Medicine, expand our understanding of the relationship between the microbiome – the microorganisms that naturally live in our bodies – and the immune system’s response to breast cancer. She will seek to determine if chronic disruption of the microbiome, possibly caused by diets heavy in processed foods, fats and sugar, is hurting the immune system’s ability to battle breast tumors – and perhaps even facilitating the cancer’s spread through the body.
“One of the underlying questions about breast cancer is why do some individuals with breast cancer develop more aggressive or metastatic disease? And why is there so much variability in the context of how their immune systems respond to these cancers?” said Rutkowski, of the UVA Cancer Center and UVA’s Carter Immunology Center. “What our research is suggesting is that these microbes that live within us, when they are unbalanced, they can dramatically influence disease progression, making the tumors more aggressive and ultimately result in the inability of the immune system to eliminate the tumor.”
Doctors are increasingly realizing the importance of the microbiome in human health and disease, Rutkowski noted. “It’s becoming more and more appreciated now that these microbes are involved in a whole variety of different pathologies,” she said. “There have been links with neurological disorders, with certain metabolic disorders, and now there’s a lot of appreciation of how these microbes, especially within the gastrointestinal tract, influence the immune response against certain types of cancer.”
Once breast cancer has spread, it is untreatable, so preventing its spread – known as metastasis – is vital. Rutkowski’s research suggests that manipulating the microbiome may lead to better outcomes. It could be as simple as a doctor instructing a patient to eat a diet high in fiber to complement her treatment regimen, Rutkowski said.
“These microorganisms have many functions. They provide a first line of defense against invading pathogens; they are involved in aiding in digestion; they have a lot of metabolic products that they secrete that help to break down the food we ingest,” she said. “Those metabolic products actually have immune regulatory activity. They help to maintain the balance of good inflammation and bad inflammation, and what is becoming really appreciated about these microorganisms is that they are able to influence our immune system. Our interest, then, is to understand how they influence cancer.”
That understanding could then be put to use in the war against breast cancer – leading to better treatments and better ways to identify women at risk, Rutkowski hopes. “Ultimately,” she said, “I’d like to see this work benefit patients.”
Susan G. Komen has invested more than $920 million to support pioneering research around the world since its founding in 1982. The group is committed to supporting research, people and resources that will reduce breast cancer deaths in the United States by 50 percent by 2026.