Treating Cancer with Bacteria Shows Promise

September 11, 2014

I teach microbiology –the study of microorganisms, like bacteria – in the third phase of the Medical Assisting program at Community Care College. You could say I know a lot about bacteria. So when I heard about the new cancer research study involving Clostridium novyi, a pathogenic type of bacteria that survives in the absence of oxygen and often causes a wide variety of diseases, I was interested.


Scientists took this bacterium and injected approximately 1 billion spores directly into cancerous tumors in 16 dogs 1-4 times a day, in the hopes that it would shrink the tumors, and it totally did. Three of the dogs in this trial were totally cured.

This success encouraged the team of scientists to consider testing the treatment in humans. A 53-year-old woman with a rare form of cancer agreed to try the treatment. The scientists injected 10,000 spores of bacteria (much less than the 1 billion injected into the dogs) into a cancerous tumor in her right shoulder. They did an MRI of the tumor four days and found that it had shrunk dramatically, and continued to shrink a month after.

I hate bacteria! So my thought process went immediately to that’s great, now what? I know there are now a ton of scary critters turned lose in this woman’s body. What happens now?

Here’s the cool thing. The bacteria microscopically destroyed just the malignant cells and left the normal tissue alone. One of the scientists was quoted as having said,

“Once they see the well-oxygenated rim of the tumor, they self-eliminate and can’t grow anymore. They are almost like a surgical, biological scalpel. Surgeons can’t get to that level of precision in terms of cutting out a tumor.”

To put it in layman’s terms: the bacteria only targeted and destroyed the cancerous cells. Once they reach a healthy tissue or cell, they die! This delivers a very precise removal of the cancerous tumor.

Now, we all know that studies constantly come out and a few months or years later they decide it wasn’t what they thought after all. Regardless, I really do have high hopes that they will continue to obtain credible and usable data to gain FDA approval for further human trials.

Bacteria are creepy, sneaky, mutants that are lurking everywhere, both the good and the bad. I do believe that for this bacteria, I can look the other way and be thankful that it exists.