I’m lucky enough to have lived through a good amount of the 20th century, and into the 21st, two amazing centuries for medical science. In my own time, doctors (and vaccines!) have eliminated or nearly eliminated such terrifying diseases as smallpox, polio, and measles. But these diseases all come from outside agents: viruses. (Never mind all the nasty infections you can get from bacteria.) What about that lofty goal of curing cancer — taming our own rogue cells when they go haywire? How can we possibly get in there and convince parts of ourselves not to kill us?
With a trusty outside agent, says Professor Mel Greaves of London’s Institute of Cancer Research . The recently knighted scientist has trialled microbes — yes, microbes — as assassins of a terrifying childhood cancer, acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
This leukemia results from a collision of two unhappy states: a genetic mutation and an “unprimed” immune system. The latter is often due to today’s hyper-clean parenting, which uses wipes and all kinds of concoctions to minimize germ exposure in babies. But “Sir Mel”’s research has shown him that children whose immune systems aren’t challenged in their first year, and who carry the leukemia mutation, can later have those trigger-happy immune systems wig out — thus sparking full-on leukemia.
“‘When such a baby is eventually exposed to common infections, his or her unprimed immune system reacts in a grossly abnormal way,’ says Greaves. ‘It over-reacts and triggers chronic inflammation.’
As this inflammation progresses, chemicals called cytokines are released into the blood and these can trigger a second mutation that results in [leukemia] in children carrying the first mutation.
‘The disease needs two hits to get going,’ Greaves explains. ‘The second comes from the chronic inflammation set off by an unprimed immune system.’”
Happily, this research means that, even if a child has the unfortunate genetic mutation, leukemia can be averted by “seeding’ their immune system with appropriate bugs. To prevent having your baby lick an escalator railing, Greaves is experimenting on mice to determine which bugs are most helpful. Then he plans to develop a yogurt-like drink, that could be taken with a minimum of fuss. This should provide enough of an immune challenge to avert the second mutation in a susceptible child, without any attendant illness. I love how we keep going back to the human microbiome for our overall health. And it just keeps getting better: today anti-jet-lag, tomorrow, anti-cancer!