In 2013, researchers led by Dr. Robert Schiestl at UCLA discovered a strain of gut bacteria, Lactobacillus johnsonii LJ-RS-1, that helped reduce symptoms of cancer in mice (Yamamoto et al. 2013). I’m a microbial ecologist and microbiologist with 20 years of research experience who is interested in how gut bacteria interact with their hosts. In my spare time I have read up on how different kinds of beneficial (probiotic) bacteria behave, and on the physiology of these bacteria. Over time, I developed a theory about how these bacteria probably interact with host cells. If I am correct, this would represent a significant advance in basic science, and it may also pave the way to making probiotic bacteria that have cancer-fighting or other beneficial effects more clinically effective.
Most of my past work has dealt with soil bacteria or fungi, not with intestinal microbes. I wasn’t sure I would be able to contribute anything useful to cancer research. However, I was strongly motivated by Mr. Jonathan Agin’s article describing how there was more of a public outcry when the fictional cartoon character Brian Griffin died than when actual children die of cancer. I thought to myself, I have to at least give it a try. My brother died of cancer in 2003, and friends have been diagnosed or have had loved ones diagnosed with cancer, and some have had to undergo chemotherapy.
I was able to contact Dr. Schiestl at UCLA, and he was very enthusiastic- he agreed with me that my ideas were worth testing. He couldn’t provide me with a salary, or supplies to do very extravagant tests. I managed to raise $2,200 via crowdfunding, and with that and money from a bank loan, I travelled to UCLA over my two-week summer vacation and spent much of it doing a few preliminary, but hopefully informative, experiments. Two of them were successful and a third is still in progress (samples have been sent for processing and as of August 10 2014, are still in the queue). [Update: The results of the third experiment are highly promising and I’ve been messing with the data in my spare time for years now- I have a plan to continue the work further and have been trying hard to find grant funding. This is problematic for me since I don’t have my own lab and so am generally not allowed to write my own grants- a recent opportunity has arisen and I am trying to take advantage of it, as of February 21, 2018].
This is science that could eventually result in new therapies for cancer, or (more likely) therapies that act with current chemotherapy to reduce the negative side effects of the antibiotic regimens that patients must undertake. There may also be applications of the work to other diseases or syndromes besides cancer- essentially, there is the potential for influencing any aspect of human physiology affected by gut microbes.