Telltale traits of bacteria offer clues for improved colorectal cancer treatment, prevention

University of Minnesota study points finger at virulence as common thread

MINNEAPOLIS/ST. PAUL (6/24/2015)—A new University of Minnesota research study at the intersection of math, genetics, microbiology, ecology and medicine has uncovered a telltale link between colorectal cancer and specific traits of bacteria found in the digestive tract. The findings could improve colorectal cancer treatment and prevention.

In the study published in the June 24 edition of Genome Medicine, the researchers compared bacteria found in the vicinity of colorectal tumors in 44 cancer patients with bacteria found in other parts of the patients’ intestines. They found that the bacterial mix at the cancer sites was more diverse than elsewhere in the colon, with two types of bacteria—Fusobacterium and Providencia—particularly predominant at the cancer sites.

More importantly, they found that certain bacterial genes—those that code for traits that enable bacteria to invade another organism and establish themselves there—were more common near tumors than in other parts of the patients’ colons, suggesting that bacteria play a role in tumor formation or growth.

“What this tells us is that there might be an effect of these bacteria on cancer,” says Ran Blekhman, a population geneticist in the University’s College of Biological Sciences and Masonic Cancer Center. Blekhman conducted the study in collaboration with colleagues in the University of Minnesota’s Medical School, Masonic Cancer Center, College of Science and Engineering and Biotechnology Institute. The co-lead author of the study is Michael Burns, Howard Hughes Medical Institute Postdoctoral Associate in the Blekhman Lab. Additional co-authors include the U of M’s Dan Knights and Timothy Starr.

Next steps for the research include using animal models to try to identify whether the bacteria might actually play a causal role. Eventually, Blekhman says, the discovery could lead to better ways to predict, detect, prevent and treat colon cancer.

Masonic Cancer Center, University of Minnesota is part of the University's Academic Health Center. It is designated by the National Cancer Institute as a Comprehensive Cancer Center. For more information about the Masonic Cancer Center, visit or call 612-624-2620.