Salmonella Tested as Possible Cancer Treatment

Aug 13, 2010
Close-up of medicine's newest cancer fighter: salmonella bacteria. (Photo: Ho New/Reuters)

In the fight against cancer, the medical field’s newest weapon just might be another deadly disease.

Salmonella, the noxious bacteria often associated with food poisoning, could potentially be used as a potent counteragent to cancer in humans, scientists now say.

Already effective in mice, where the virus both killed cancer cells and acted as a vaccine against future tumor growth, the salmonella treatment may also work in humans, the Telegraph reports.

In an almost cloak-and-dagger medical scenario, doctors send in the salmonella as a sort of undercover agent to infiltrate cancerous tumors and alert the body’s immune system to the presence of cancer cells.

The alerted immune system attacks the cancer and kills it off, then learns to guard against future tumor growth.

Cancer cells, the Telegraph reports, are highly dangerous precisely because of their ability to evade the body’s immune system. But the introduction of the salmonella in non-harmful dosages sounds the alarm on both itself and the cancer, triggering the body to attack the invasive threat.

The treatment has been in development for several years. According to a 2008 piece from ScienceDaily, an early version of the process in the mouse trials involved something called “death receptors” that triggered cancer cells to literally kill themselves. 

A more detailed description of the current process from 2009 shows how and why salmonella may end up working better than traditional chemotherapy. Salmonella, it turns out, is so hardy it can survive and stay mobile in blood and tissue with very low oxygen levels and restricted blood flow: an environment that is typically found in a tumor.

From the ScienceDaily piece:

“[Salmonella bacteria] can live almost everywhere, including tissues, which are badly supplied with blood and thus have hardly any oxygen supply. And it is precisely these areas that are scarcely reachable in a cancerous ulcer using common cancer therapies: chemotherapeutics cannot be transported to an area where there is no blood flow.”

The salmonella trick belongs to a class of treatment called immunotherapies, which use the body’s own defenses to combat disease. Along with mice, the process has also worked in living human cells, DailyTech reports, and researchers are waiting for FDA approval to begin human trials. 

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