Studying interplay between gut microbiome and cancer treatments to reduce cardiac complications

The treatment of cancer may soon get a shot in the arm as researchers come closer to understanding the link between the disease and the diversity of microbes, fungi and viruses in a person’s gut.

Recently, oncologists found that the variety and composition of what lives in the gastrointestinal tract affects how patients respond to cancer treatments. A key is a person’s gut microbiome, which could serve as a predictor to identify patient populations and potential therapeutic targets.

Hua Pan, PhD, MBA

A better understanding of this relationship could lead to new techniques for improving cancer outcomes and reducing the toxicity of anti-cancer treatments, according to researchers at the USF Health Heart Institute and the USF Initiative on Microbiomes project.

By far, knowledge is limited on how cancer treatments alter gut microbiome, and how dysbioisis – a microbial imbalance – caused by these treatments impair normal cardiovascular function, said Hua Pan, PhD, MBA, assistant professor of medicine at the Institute.

“We now have over 18 million cancer survivors, but many are facing the problem of cardiovascular complications. Cancer cells use newly generated blood vessels to support their growth, and anti-cancer treatment destroys the blood vessels for the cancer but also for the normal part of the body.’’         

Hua Pan, PhD, MBA, assistant professor at the USF Health Heart Institute

Pan wants to connect the dots. She’s focusing on the interplay among the microbiome, vessel damage, and heart failure after patients receive cancer treatment. This research is important, she said, because cardiovascular complications caused by the toxins in cancer treatment are a leading cause of death among cancer survivors. Moreover, cardiotoxicity is one of the reasons cancer patients don’t continue receiving treatment.

Armed with more knowledge about how the microbiome affects cardiovascular complications, researchers hope to identify high-risk patient populations for next-generation nanotherapy. Rather than a general treatment, these high-risk populations might receive more personalized treatment based on their microbiome.

Certain cancer therapies can increase the risk of damage to the heart and cardiovascular system.

“We hope to generate a product (from the microbiome) that could have a predictive value for cancer patients who are more susceptible to cardiovascular problems,’’ Pan said. “That would help us identity the right population for a certain therapy. It’s a personalized treatment.’’

Although many questions remain about the effect of microbiota on cancers and treatments, the Initiative on Microbiomes is bringing researchers closer to the right answers.

“It’s very promising, definitely,’’ she said. “And it one day could reduce health care costs, which today are almost 18% of the gross national product in the United States.’’

-Story by Kurt Loft