According to a recent study, bacteria living deep inside the digestive system seem to alter how cancer drugs work.
Immunotherapies – which harness the body’s own defenses to fight tumors – can clear even terminal cancer in a small proportion of patients.
However, a small study by the University of Texas found those harboring a more diverse community of gut bugs are more likely to benefit.
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The human body is home to trillions of micro-organisms – estimates suggest our own tissues are so heavily outnumbered that our bodies are just 10% human.
A growing wealth of studies shows these microbes can influence our immune systems and have been implicated in auto-immune diseases and allergies.
Immunotherapies are one of the most exciting breakthroughs in treating cancer. They work by taking the brakes off the immune system to help it to attack tumors more easily.
The research group compared the gut bacteria in 23 patients who responded to the therapy and 11 who did not.
The study, presented at the National Cancer Research Institute’s Cancer Conference in Liverpool, found Ruminococcus bacteria in much higher levels in those that responded to treatment.
It suggests that it may be possible to boost the effectiveness of immunotherapy by altering the balance of bacteria in the gut.
Procedures such as a trans-poo-sion – a transplant of fecal matter containing beneficial bacteria – are already used as a treatment for some diseases.
It is not yet clear if the differences in bacteria are the cause of the better response.
People with diets containing more fruit and vegetables tend to have a richer set of gut bugs, so it is possible that it is those with a healthier lifestyle that respond better to therapy.
British scientists have announced that Olaparib, the first drug that targets precise genetic mutations in prostate cancer, has been shown to be effective in a “milestone” trial.
The study, at the Institute of Cancer Research in London, took place on 49 men with untreatable cancer.
Olaparib had low overall success, but slowed tumor growth in 88% of patients with specific DNA mutations.
Cancer Research UK said the trial was exciting.
Olaparib, the first marketed drug to tackle inherited cancer mutations, was licensed in 2014 for women with ovarian cancer who have faulty BRCA genes.
The future of cancer medicine is treating cancers by their mutated DNA rather than what part of the body they are in.
The breast cancer drug Herceptin is already used only in patients with specific mutations. Olaparib targets mutations that change the way DNA is repaired.
The trial results, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, showed the drug worked in 14 out of 16 men with such mutations.
Levels of Prostate Specific Antigen (PSA), which is produced by tumors, was more than halved and there were also significant falls in the number of prostate cancer cells detected in the blood and in the size of secondary tumors.
Patients responded to the drug for between six months and nearly a year and a half.
Prostate cancer is the fifth most deadly type of cancer in men.
However, a larger clinical trial is needed before doctors can say if the drug extends life expectancy.
According to a new research, HIV can be flushed out of its hiding places in the body using PEP005 – one of the ingredients in a treatment to prevent cancer in sun-damaged skin.
The cornerstone of treatment, anti-retroviral therapy, kills the virus in the bloodstream but leaves “HIV reservoirs” untouched.
The study, published in PLoS Pathogens, showed PEP005 was “highly potent” at reactivating hidden HIV.
Experts said the findings were interesting, but it was important to know if PEP005 was safe in patients.
The power of the HIV reservoir was shown with the case of the Mississippi baby.
The baby girl was given antiretroviral drugs at birth. Despite appearing to be free of HIV for nearly two years after stopping treatment, she was found to be harboring the virus.
A strategy known as “kick and kill” is thought to be key to curing HIV – the kick would wake up the dormant HIV allowing the drugs to kill it.
The team at the Davis School of Medicine investigated PEP005. They tested the drug in cells grown in the laboratory and in parts of the immune system taken from 13 people with HIV.
The report said “PEP005 is highly potent in reactivating latent HIV” and that the chemical represents “a new group of lead compounds for combating HIV”.
One of the researchers, Dr, Satya Dandekar, said: “We are excited to have identified an outstanding candidate for HIV reactivation and eradication that is already approved and is being used in patients.
“This molecule has great potential to advance into translational and clinical studies.”
However, PEP005 has still not been tested in people who are HIV-positive.
Lung cancer drug gefitinib could be given to women with ectopic pregnancies in a bid to help them avoid surgery.
A joint study by researchers in Edinburgh and Melbourne, Australia, found that combining gefitinib with existing treatment was more effective at curing the condition.
An ectopic pregnancy is when an embryo implants in the Fallopian tube.
It can be treated with drugs if identified early, but surgery is needed when it is more developed.
The study, published in the journal Obstetrics and Gynaecology, involved a trial of 12 women.
Lung cancer drug gefitinib could be given to women with ectopic pregnancies in a bid to help them avoid surgery
Gefitinib, usually used to treat lung cancer, blocks a protein that is known to encourage cell growth, and which was found to be present in high levels at the site of ectopic pregnancies.
Scientists from the Edinburgh University’s medical research council centre for reproductive health, and the University of Melbourne, suggested that combining gefitinib with the conventional treatment – called methotrexate – could reduce the need to remove the Fallopian tube in a significant number of cases.
They said this would help a patient’s level of fertility.
The researchers also found that the drug combination was able to shorten the time it took to successfully treat ectopic pregnancies in women who did not need surgery.
Dr. Andrew Horne, who led the study, said: “An ectopic pregnancy can be extremely stressful for the woman involved.
“If we can reduce the need for surgery, and thereby help fertility levels, then that would be an enormous benefit.
“Reducing the treatment time for women who do not need surgery would also have a significant impact in reducing the emotional stress of such a diagnosis.”
Researchers now plan to run a larger trial.
India’s Supreme Court has rejected a plea by Swiss drugmaker Novartis to patent an updated version of its cancer drug, Glivec.
Novartis had been denied a patent by Indian authorities on the grounds that Glivec new version was only slightly different from the old.
There were concerns that a patent could threaten access to cheap generic versions of drugs in poorer countries.
India’s Supreme Court has rejected a plea by Swiss drugmaker Novartis to patent an updated version of its cancer drug, Glivec
But some Western companies had warned that a decision against Novartis could discourage investment in research.
Glivec, which is used to treat chronic myeloid leukaemia and other cancers, costs about $2,600 a month.
The generic equivalent is currently available in India for just $175.
“This will go a long way in providing affordable medicine for the poor,” said Anand Grover, a lawyer representing Cancer Patients Aid Association, adding that he was “ecstatic with the ruling”.
Novartis applied for a patent in 2006 for its new version of the drug, arguing that it was easier to absorb and therefore qualified for a fresh patent.
However, the Indian patent authority rejected the application based on a law aimed at preventing companies from getting fresh patents by making only minor changes to existing drugs, a practice known as “evergreening”.
Officials also turned down a subsequent appeal by the company three years later.
On Monday, India’s Supreme Court rejected Novartis appeal to get patent protection for the drug.
The AFP news agency quoted the court as saying that the updated drug “did not satisfy the test of novelty or inventiveness” as required by the law.
Patents usually protect the companies for 20 years of exclusive sales. After that, it is open to other firms who can make cheaper copies of the original drug.
Once the protection expires, the first company to challenge the patent gets an exclusive right to sell the copy for 180 days.
After 180 days, more companies can sell the generic versions, potentially resulting in a further price drop.
It is estimated that drugs with combined annual sales of $150 billion will go off-patent by 2015.
India’s generic drug makers are among the biggest in the world and many expect them to benefit from these patents expiring in the coming years.
However, there have been concerns that if firms are granted patents for updated versions of their drugs, it may not only deny access to cheaper medicines to poor people, but also hurt the makers of generic drugs.
Pratibha Singh, a lawyer for the Indian generic drug manufacturer Cipla, said the ruling had set a precedent that would prevent international pharmaceutical companies from obtaining fresh patents in India on updated versions of existing drugs.
“Patents will be given only for genuine inventions, and repetitive patents will not be given for minor tweaks to an existing drug,” she said.
Shares of Novartis India fell almost 5% on the Bombay Stock Exchange, while stocks of generic drugmakers such as Cipla and Natco rose after the judgement.