Magazine article Science News

Bacterial Toxin May Fend off Colon Cancer. (Montezuma's Welcome Revenge?)

Magazine article Science News

Bacterial Toxin May Fend off Colon Cancer. (Montezuma's Welcome Revenge?)

Article excerpt

Some microbes that cause diarrhea may have important beneficial consequences. Researchers have found that the illness-inducing toxin from some strains of the common gut bacterium, Escherichia coli, stifles the growth of cancerous intestinal cells. This discovery may help explain why colon cancer strikes people less often in regions of the world where disease-causing E. coli infections are more common. The finding also suggests promising new directions for treating the cancer.

Each year, about 150,000 people are diagnosed with colon cancer in the United States alone. Although the disease is the fourth-leading cause of cancer-related mortality worldwide, few people living in developing nations contract the illness. That led clinical pharmacologists Giovanni M. Pitari and Scott A. Waldman of Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia to suspect environmental factors.

Infectious strains of E. coli lurk in the water and food in many developing regions in Africa, South America, and elsewhere. The bacteria-produced enterotoxin interacts with intestinal cells to spur diarrhea. Pitari and Waldman wondered whether enterotoxin might also stunt the proliferation of cells in the intestine, thereby protecting against cancer there.

To find out, the researchers provided a synthetic version of enterotoxin to human colon cancer cells growing in lab dishes. In a forthcoming Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they report that this treatment halved the rate of cell proliferation. …

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