Big Ideas

Ami Bhatt, M.D., Ph.D.

When we think about beating cancers, most of us focus on killing cancer cells. Stanford Cancer Institute researcher Ami Bhatt, M.D., Ph.D., looks at the bigger picture – by thinking small. Her work focuses on how tiny microbes inside our bodies affect cancer development and treatment.

The trillions of bacteria and fungi living in and on our bodies are collectively called the microbiome. Bhatt and her colleagues want to understand how microbes can affect not only whether or not someone develops cancer, but also how they respond to treatment and their likelihood of complications.

“Our work on the microbiome takes a big step back and asks a more holistic question,” said Bhatt. “The research of our lab and others like ours will hopefully result in microbiome-focused therapies and ‘add-ons’ to cancer therapy that really change the way we treat patients.”

Bhatt’s current work focuses on a special type of fiber. When digested by a certain type of bacteria in the gut, the fiber is turned into molecules that control the human immune system. By giving this fiber to cancer patients, the researchers hope to increase the immune system-controlling molecules. That, in turn, will hopefully lead to more effective immunotherapy and cell therapy treatments.

“Our goal is to figure out if we can enhance the growth of these ‘good’ bacteria or encourage them to make anti-cancer molecules to improve cancer patient outcomes,” said Bhatt.

Since the microbiome is in constant communication with the cells in our body, Bhatt said she believes understanding how microbes “talk” to us through the molecules they make can help lead to more discoveries that can improve cancer patient’s lives.

“When I started working on the microbiome and cancer, people thought I was crazy to commit to such a new field,” said Bhatt. “But now there is clear evidence that the microbiome is important for cancer patients. I like that we may be able to develop entirely new ways to think about how to improve cancer patients’ lives.”

Bhatt received a V Scholar Grant from the V Foundation in 2018, which was funded in partnership with the SagerStrong Foundation in memory of the late Craig Sager.

“When Craig was honored with the Jimmy V Perseverance Award at the 2016 ESPYs, we had the opportunity to learn more about the work of the V Foundation,” said Stacy Sager, President of the SagerStrong Foundation. “When we were introduced to Dr. Bhatt and her work, we knew this was a project we wanted to support.”

High-risk, high-reward work like Bhatt’s has a hard time attracting traditional funding. While a recent clinical trial yielded encouraging results on a microbiome-based therapy, she said her team probably would not have had the opportunity to advance that work without the V Foundation.

“The grant from the V Foundation has been critical in helping us advance our microbiome-focused research,” said Bhatt. “The type of research that will transform cancer care requires early investment in high-risk projects, and that is what supporters of the V Foundation are enabling.”

With your continued support, the V Foundation will continue funding innovative researchers like Bhatt, who are thinking outside the box to find more effective treatments for all types of cancers and make the light at the end of the cancer tunnel continue to appear brighter.

“It’s not just about beating the cancer,” said Bhatt. “It’s about extending the quality of life and giving hope to all patients and families affected by cancer.”