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Programmable Bacteria Could Cure Cancer with Single $1 Dose

By HospiMedica International staff writers
Posted on 29 Nov 2023

Cancer treatments have traditionally faced challenges such as harmful side effects, limited patient responsiveness, and high costs. A significant percentage of cancer survivors and patients are burdened by the financial impact of their treatments, with many experiencing substantial medical debt. Advanced cancer therapies can reach staggering costs of up to a million dollars. In response to these challenges, a collaborative research team, backed by federal funding, is developing a highly targeted and cost-effective bacterial therapy for cancer that could offer treatment at an affordable USD 1 per dose.

Texas A&M University (College Station, TX, USA) and the University of Missouri (Columbia, MO, USA) are leading this groundbreaking research and have secured a USD 20 million grant from the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H). Of this funding, USD 12 million is allocated to Texas A&M University for the development of synthetic programmable bacteria designed to enhance the immune system's ability to target and destroy cancer cells (SPIKEs). The concept involves engineering bacteria to aid T cells in eliminating cancerous tissue, then self-destructing and exiting the body safely.

Image: Investigators are developing synthetic programmable bacteria to help kill cancerous tissue (Photo courtesy of Texas A&M University)
Image: Investigators are developing synthetic programmable bacteria to help kill cancerous tissue (Photo courtesy of Texas A&M University)

The research team is developing high-throughput microfluidic systems capable of rapidly processing extensive libraries of bacterial therapeutics, one cell at a time, to identify the most promising treatments. These systems are enabled by combining microfabrication methods and biotechnology to create a pico-liter-volume liquid handling system capable of analyzing single cells with high precision and speeds, resulting in devices to analyze individual cells rapidly. This approach allows for rapid identification of the most promising therapeutic candidates. Researchers are particularly interested in Brucella Melitensis, a bacterium known for its ability to modify the human body's microenvironment and stimulate T cell-mediated anti-tumor immunity. This bacterium is being further developed to enhance its effectiveness in combating at least four cancer types. Early data suggests Brucella's efficacy significantly surpasses current cancer treatments, including Chimeric antigen receptor T-cell therapy and T-cell receptor therapies, with a response rate of over 70%.

While continuing to test the bacteria’s efficiency using cancer models, the researchers are also working to ensure the living bacterial therapeutic is safe and controllable. Ultimately, the researchers aim to control the bacterium’s growth rate, ensuring that it targets only tumor environments, and program it for self-destruction post-treatment. Genetic modifications are planned to control bacterial population levels, while biosensors will be incorporated to differentiate between healthy and tumor tissues. After the cancer is treated, patients will be able to take antibiotics that trigger the bacteria to disintegrate and be harmlessly expelled from the body.

“It’s a really great opportunity to have an incredible team who have expertise and can push this technology to the front line,” said co-principal investigator Chelsea Hu. “So that sort of goal is to reach the clinic and provide patients with an effective cancer treatment at less than $1 per dose.”

Related Links:
Texas A&M University 
University of Missouri 

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