The MU School of Medicine has been awarded $2.3 million for researchers to study how a common gut bacteria could help immunotherapy treat liver cancer.

Researchers acquired the money from the National Institutes of Health in hopes of improving the survival rate for patients diagnosed with liver cancer . Patients with liver cancer generally have a five-year survival rate of about 20%, although that rate varies depending upon factors such as the stage of cancer at the time of diagnosis, according to the American Cancer Society.

Recent studies have shown that certain gut microbes could aid immunotherapy by fine-tuning the dendritic cells and macrophages in the immune system that help to identify and destroy tumor cells, said Guangfu Li, one of the researchers.

Li is an associate professor in the Department of Surgery and the Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology. His colleague in the research is Kevin F. Staveley-O'Carroll, a professor in the Department of Surgery.

The research is focusing on bacteroides thetaiotaomicron, one of the most common species of bacteria found in the human gut. It’s job is to direct the immune system to discover cancer cells in the liver.

After studying the bacteria’s methods in helping the immune system, researchers will then put it to the test to observe if it is effective in assisting immunotherapy treatments in mice with liver cancer.

“These studies will provide insight into the role gut microbes play in the anti-cancer immune system,” Li said in a news release. “We are hopeful these findings will advance gut microbiota-integrated immunotherapy and translate into a clinical application that could eventually save human lives.”

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