Why Drug Giants Like Merck & Co. and AstraZeneca PLC Scientists are Looking in the Toilet for New Cancer Treatments

Published: Jun 16, 2017

Why Drug Giants Like Merck & Co. and AstraZeneca PLC Scientists are Looking in the Toilet for New Cancer Treatments June 14, 2017
By Alex Keown, BioSpace.com Breaking News Staff

NEW YORK – Some cancer research is nothing but poop. No, that’s almost literal. Cancer researchers from pharma giants like Merck and AstraZeneca are focused on the microbes found in the bowels and human waste to better understand cancer and how to combat the disease.

New research, Bloomberg reported on Tuesday, is suggesting a link between microbes in stool samples and immuno-therapies. According to the report a number of companies are looking to gut therapies as a way to treat cancers. The companies are establishing microbiome research centers to study the gut and bowel bacteria in order to develop therapies that may not have some of the side effects that current immunotherapies have. Therapies using microbes from the lower gastrointestinal tract are also thought to have a broader indication, which means more revenue streams for the drug companies.

The microbiome is the collection of trillions of microbes that live in and on the human body. In recent years, scientists have found that the microbiome plays a crucial role in many areas of human biology and disease. Biological therapy uses natural or artificial substances that mimic or block natural cell responses to kill, control or change the behavior of cancer cells.

In a 2016 interview with Live Mint Daniel Chen, head of cancer immunotherapy research at Roche ’s Genentech , said a few years ago he would have scoffed at the notion of gut bacteria playing an important role in systemic immune response. He has since changed his mind.

“Most of us immunologists now believe that there really is an important interaction there,” he told Live Mint.

In preclinical work the fecal-based therapies have shown some promise. Bloomberg’s report points to a 2015 paper that showed fecal transplants from human patients treated with an unnamed immuno-oncology drug “kick-started the medicine’s effectiveness in mice.”

Another paper showed how fecal bacteria combined with another immuno drug froze tumor growth, Bloomberg said.

By diving into the fecal bacteria studies, Bloomberg noted researchers are looking at three key goals: How to better determine who can be helped by these types of therapies; How to “tweak” the body’s immune system so more patients will respond to the treatments; and lastly how to prevent the common side effect of the immune system attacking the gut.

But, as with any research, replicating what happened in animal models in human patients is not always easy. Belen Garijo, who oversees Merck KgaA ’s healthcare business sector, told Bloomberg that there has not yet been any clear data indicating the fecal-based approach will work in humans. Researchers know that only time will tell.

Pharma companies are plunking down big money into this field of research. Earlier this year, Merck opened its microbiome R&D site in Cambridge, Mass. to focus on this kind of treatment. Merck is not be the only company in the Boston area to have a focus on this kind of treatment. Flagship Ventures companies Seres Therapeutics and Epiva BioSciences are also delving into the microbiome. Seres stumbled last summer when its Phase II C. diff trial failed. Earlier this year, the company announced plans to launch a new Phase II study.

Pfizer and Roche have backed San Francisco-based Second Genome to expand that company’s microbiome discovery platform. Although that company is not looking at cancer research, but more to the development of treatments for inflammation and pain associated with ulcerative colitis.

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