Injecting live bacteria into tumors? Synthetic biology revives a controversial century old cancer cure

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Credit: MIT News

Could the body, in fighting against a pathogen, also be battling a tumor? After injecting bacteria into a patient who showed tumor shrinkage, Coley’s toxin, as it came to be known, was tried out on nearly a thousand patients to varying degrees of success.

Controversial at the time, and almost forgotten in the age of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, cancer immunotherapy (also known as immuno-oncology) has been rediscovered by modern-day researchers, who are leveraging the incredible power of our own human immune system to bring new cancer treatments to the mainstream. 

To develop a cancer therapy, Synlogic’s solution is to inject living bacteria directly into a tumor to stimulate the body’s defenses to act right where they’re needed, not unlike Willam Coley did all those years ago. The best part? Synthetic biology can be used to engineer bacteria that elicit an immune response but pose no danger of causing disease themselves, reducing a danger Coley first recognized in 1891. 

Related article:  If we want to go to Mars, we'll need to figure out how to feed our astronauts. Synthetic biology can help.

“Instead of using an attenuated [weakened] pathogen,” [Synlogic CEO Aoife] Brennan continues, “we are taking non-pathogenic bacteria and engineering in certain pathways and effectors that are important in the immune response. The first strain we’ve taken forward, to prove the pathway is viable, is called SYNB1891, in honor of William Coley and the year he injected live bacteria into a patient’s tumor.”

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