Could our gut bacteria play a role in lung cancer?

Philip Hansbro

Professor Philip Hansbro

The University of NewcastleCancer Council NSW Funding: $448,695Funding duration: 2019–2021


In 2019, around 12,800 Australians will be diagnosed with lung cancer making it our fifth most common cancer. With few effective treatments available, the survival rate remains low; only around 17% of those diagnosed today can expect to survive for five years or longer.

Smoking is the primary factor that puts people at risk. Air pollution is also becoming an important factor. In Australia, smoking currently contributes to around 85-90% of lung cancer cases, however, fewer than 25% of smokers will develop lung cancer and, although rare, lung cancer can also occur in ‘never smokers’. This means there must be other factors at play and they could be the key to developing more effective treatments.

In recent years, the gut microbiome has emerged as a key area of focus for medical research. The gut microbiome (or gut bacteria) is a collection of bacteria and other microorganisms that live in our gastrointestinal tract and is responsible for breaking down the food we eat. Researchers have discovered links between gut bacteria and a wide range of illnesses including colon, liver and pancreatic cancers. Could gut bacteria also play a role in lung cancer?

The research

Professor Hansbro and his team have been studying the role of gut bacteria in chronic lung diseases including emphysema. They’ve been able to show that manipulating gut bacteria can help to manage lung disease, highlighting a link between the gut and lung health.

The team has developed a way to mimic lung cancer in the lab, giving them a means to investigate how the disease develops and progresses. In this project, the researchers will look at the role of gut bacteria in this process. They will analyse changes to the composition and function of gut bacteria as lung cancer develops and progresses in order to identify specific bacteria and their components or products that may be involved. Based on this information, the team will use a variety of approaches to manipulate the gut bacteria, for example, by faecal microbiome transfers (transferring healthy gut bacteria into the gastrointestinal tract), and treatment with prebiotics, probiotics or antibiotics.

The impact

This is one of the first studies in Australia and the world to assess the role of gut bacteria in lung cancer development and progression. Professor Hansbro and his team hope to show that manipulating gut bacteria can help treat, or even prevent, lung cancer. If successful, the team will continue their research using samples of human gut bacteria to develop new treatments for clinical trials.

This project opens up an exciting new field of research in lung cancer, one with significant potential to prevent lung cancer in at-risk populations and improve survival.

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