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#HRB30 Story

From bugs to drugs: using bacteria to deliver medicines to tumours

15 December 2016

When cancer spreads in the body, tumours can be hard to find. But not for bacteria - researchers at University College Cork have engineered bacteria that can find tumours and load them up with genes to make anti-cancer drugs on the spot. The outcome could be easy-to-swallow probiotics that find and destroy tumours.

University College Cork, Project Leader Dr Mark Tangney.

The problem

When cancer spreads in the body, the disease can be much harder to treat – because therapies need to be given to the entire body in order to find all the tumours. So we need new ways of getting drugs to work only within these cancerous tumours throughout the body, in order to kill them, but without harming non-cancerous regions.

The project

HRB-funded researchers at University College Cork want to use bacteria to find tumours in the body and deliver anti-cancer drugs directly to them. Tumours are often low in oxygen, but some bacteria, such as probiotic bacteria, like that. We already know that if these bacteria are injected into the body they like to grow at tumour sites. So the researchers looked to see if they could add genes to probiotic bacteria and use them as tiny ’Trojan horses’ to get inside the tumour and then make drugs on the spot and destroy the cancer.

The outcomes
  • A new suite of engineered ’Trojan horse’ bacteria that can now be tested to deliver drugs directly to hard-to-find tumours in the body.
  • The bacteria should be able to target most types of solid tumours, so could work against a range of different cancers.
  • Preparations are underway for clinical trials of the cancer-targeting bacteria in humans - ultimately the patient may simply need to swallow the bacteria to set them to work.

Dr Mark Tangney from the Cork Cancer Research Centre says:

‘The great thing about probiotic bacteria is that the body likes them - so once they are injected or swallowed they can go off and find a tumour. Then, if we have pre-loaded the bacteria with genes to make anti-cancer drugs, the idea is that they can make the drugs directly at the site of the tumour and kill the cancer’.

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