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Delineating the Role of the Microbiome in Modulating Tumor and Host Immunity

Jennifer Wargo, MD, MMSc

Dr. Wargo is an associate professor in the Department of Surgical Oncology at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Her SU2C Innovative Research Grant project, awarded in 2017, is titled “Delineating the Role of the Microbiome in Modulating Tumor and Host Immunity.”

In recent years, tremendous progress has been made in the treatment of melanoma and other cancers using immunotherapy, affording robust treatment choices for patients previously thought to have “untreatable” disease. However, a significant proportion of patients do not respond to these treatments, and there is a critical need to identify new strategies to enhance therapeutic responses. An area of study that warrants further exploration is the microbiome, the many different types of bacteria present in the human gut. There is now mounting evidence that the diversity of bacteria within the gut may affect responses to immunotherapy. In preliminary studies, Dr. Wargo and her team demonstrated that there was a direct correlation between the type of bacteria in the gut of patients with metastatic melanoma and their ability to respond to immunotherapy. Further, these differences were associated with differences in the population of immune cells in the patient’s tumors. To gain a better understanding of the mechanisms by which the gut microbiome may modulate immune responses to a range of immunotherapy, this project will explore the differences in the microbiome of patients that do and do not respond to such treatment, and devise strategies to change the microbiome to enhance the patient’s responsiveness to treatment. It is anticipated that results from these studies have the potential to lead to clinical trials incorporating strategies to enhance responses to immunotherapy (via modulation of the microbiome) for melanoma patients. It is also possible that those studies could be extended to other tumor types.