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Can bacteria be used to treat cancer?

In a previous post I discussed the recent news report about 2 neurosurgeons from the University of California who conducted research on 3 patients with an experimental procedure, allegedly, without the university's knowledge. The procedure involved using bacteria to treat brain cancer by introducing them into surgical wounds -- thereby causing an infection at the site. Whether there was miscommunication between the researchers and university authorities or not, the researchers have been banned from conducting human research for the meantime. In this post I would like to explore the logic behind this experimental procedure.

It has been observed by some researchers that patients who had developed a postoperative infection, ranging from meningitis to brain abscesses, faired unusually better than those who did not develop these surgical complications after surgical resection of their brain cancer. One particular study published in 2011 by De Bonis et al sought to retrospectively analyze data to see if this "myth" had been true at their clinic. After reviewing data between 2001 to 2008, their results did in fact show that patients who had developed some form of postoperative infection survived significantly longer when compared to those that did not. They point out however, that a previous research paper by Bohman et al who also investigated this phenomenon did not produce similar results.

This has created a significant conundrum: preliminary research suggests both remarkable as well as unremarkable differences in patient outcomes in those who developed neurosurgical infections after tumor resection. Acknowledging this discrepancy in results, De Bonis et al points out that their study shows that much more research needs to be done to get to the bottom of this and that their results remain limited by its retrospective nature as well as other factors.

Nevertheless, the significant prolongation of life in patients with infected wounds even in limited cases can certainly explain why some patients would be willing to undergo such an experimental procedure as a last resort measure to overcome their brain cancer. Before bacteria can be introduced to patients in a safer and less experimental environment it will become necessary to see what particular factors are resulting in increased host defense against brain cancer, which bacteria, if not all, are particularly effective in stimulating this reaction, and possibly, generating attenuated bacteria for the sole purpose of providing such treatment.

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