Scientists at the Universities of Nottingham and Maastricht have engineered a strain of bacteria that may be able to fight cancer!

Clostridium sporogenes are anaerobic soil dwellers which cannot survive in the presence of oxygen.   Researchers have genetically modified these bacteria so that they produce an enzyme that activates a cancer drug.  It turns out that the centers of solid cancer tumors contain very little oxygen.  Researchers hope to inject cancer patients’ tumors with the engineered Clostridium spores, which would not survive in the rest of the oxygen-rich body.   After a tumor is infected with the Clostridium, a patient would also be injected with a cancer drug.  The drug would circulate throughout the body in an inactive, “pro-drug” form, and would become active only inside of the tumor.  This would allow for targeted attack of the tumor with fewer healthy cell casualties than conventional chemotherapy.  If successful, this treatment would be especially useful for hard to reach tumors, such as in the brain.

One of the scientists involved in the research, Professor Nigel Minton, explains, “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, i.e. 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.”

The bacteria are slotted to be tested in clinical trials starting in 2013.