Wenhan Zhu, Ph.D.

Colorectal cancer is the second most deadly cancer worldwide. Both bacteria in our gut and the activity of our own cells in the intestines can contribute to the risk of colorectal cancer. However, we don’t know how these two factors work together to cause cancer. Some “bad” bacteria use toxins to cause colorectal cancer. But cancer takes over 1,000 times longer than bacteria’s lifespan to develop. So why do bacteria purposefully cause cancer? We think that “bad” bacteria remodel intestinal cell activity to produce nutrients that the bacteria can use as “food.” The rewired intestinal cell metabolism helps cancer cells grow faster. In other words, cancer development is a side effect of the “bad” bacteria trying to get food. If we can better understand this process, we can develop treatments that stop the growth of the “bad” bacteria and the tumors they cause. Using experiments in mice, we will first test whether the “food” produced by the cells in our gut helps the “bad” bacteria grow better. We will then try to block this process to reduce the growth of both the “bad” bacteria and the tumors. Lastly, we will test whether what we find in animals holds true in humans. This proposal is innovative because it uses what “bad” bacteria “eat” to help us understand how they cause cancer. We hope to use what we learn to develop better, more effective treatments for patients suffering from colorectal cancer caused by “bad” bacteria.

Location: Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center/ Vanderbilt University Medical Center - Tennessee
Proposal: Bacterial toxin reshapes epithelial cell metabolism to promote carcinogenesis in the gut
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