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Exploring the Connection Between the Gut Microbiome and Colon Cancer

By: Sarah Jackson
Posted: Thursday, March 28, 2019

Compared with the relationship between viruses and cancer—such as the human papillomavirus and cervical cancer—the role of bacteria in cancer development is not nearly as well established. According to Shahid Umar, PhD, researcher with The University of Kansas Cancer Center, researchers have only just begun to scratch the surface when it comes to understanding the microbiome and its connection to diseases such as cancer. Dr. Umar and his research team are conducting various studies of the gut microbiome to better understand its potential connection with colon cancer. 

One arm of Dr. Umar’s research involves studying dietary factors, primarily a group of short-chain fatty acids (SCFA), to prevent colon cancer. These acids, of which butyrate is one, are produced when gut bacteria ferment fiber in the colon, and they are the main source of energy for the cells lining the colon.

Using plant-based approaches, Dr. Umar and his lab are focusing on two products: pectin, the soluble fiber found in ripe fruit and jellies, and tributyrin, the triglyceride and insoluble fiber naturally present in butter. Dr. Umar and his team developed mouse models with no bacteria to receive one of the two compounds. According to Dr. Umar, these mice represent an ideal model system to study the role of bacteria in colitis and colitis-associated colon cancer.

“In these mice, pectin is never converted to that necessary butyrate,” Dr. Umar stated in an institutional press release. “However, the tributyrin, because it does not require a microbiome to change to butyrate, protected the mice from developing colitis. Those mice seem to recover and appear less likely to develop colon cancer.”

“I’ve always been fascinated by the world of microbes, and research increasingly shows that [they] play an integral role in our health,” Dr. Umar commented. “The microbiome is the new frontier.”



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