Why Soil Biodiversity May Save Your Life

The past couple days I’ve been a story-gathering, booth-mobbing Wisconsin Science Festival maniac. It’s time to retire #WiSciFest, though as promised, there will be a piece about the science behind Wisconsin foods (e.g. bratwursts, beer and ice cream) published in a few days, on madisoncommons.org.

This post is about the diverse medium under our feet, soil, and why it is of growing importance to cancer research. Earlier this month, both BBC and Daily Mail reported on the work led by a researcher at the University of Nottingham about a soil bacteria. It turns out Clostridium sporogenes thrives in the oxygen-free interior of a tumor, making it the perfect messenger for a cancer-fighting drug.

 C. sporogenes image from BBC

Researchers genetically modified C. sporogenes to carry a cancer drug as well as an enzyme. The enzyme is a crucial addition because it activates the drug when the bacteria reach the anaerobic confines of the tumor. This calculated release process is excellent for minimizing harm to the healthy part of a body.

The lead researcher, Nigel Minton, commented on why the soil-inhabiting bacteria are a perfect fit for the job in an interview with BBC:

“Clostridia are an ancient group of bacteria that evolved on the planet before it had an oxygen-rich atmosphere and so they thrive in low oxygen conditions. When Clostridia spores are injected into a cancer patient, they will only grow in oxygen-depleted environments, ie the centre of solid tumours. This is a totally natural phenomenon, which requires no fundamental alterations and is exquisitely specific. We can exploit this specificity to kill tumour cells but leave healthy tissue unscathed.”

It seems that scientists were buzzing about Minton’s progress at the Society for General Microbiology’s 2011 Autumn Conference, the UK’s news and science news networks had posts galore. I can’t find a publication in the U.S. that picked up the story, though it was noted by The Richard Dawkins Foundation.

Minton was the coordinator of an EU funded group, born in 2001, to develop this particular bacteria as a cancer-fighting agent.  In 2002, he co-authored an article with a Stanford radiation oncology researcher in Gene Therapy about C. sporogenes. At that stage in the research, the article’s impact was primarily to establish the bacteria’s rising potential as a cancer drug vector. Now, Minton is predicting patient trials in two years.

Earlier this year Minton and another University of Nottingham researcher acquired a patent for both the modified DNA molecule that enables the cancer drug delivery and the process of mutating the DNA (if you’re dying to see sequenced DNA, click on the patent and scroll down towards the bottom).

2013 may be a big year for cancer treatment if C. sporogenes performs well in patient trials. If so, chalk one up for one of science’s remaining frontiers: soil.

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