Female Ovarian Cancer Risk and the Microbiome
Bacteria, I mean. Inside our mouths, on our skin, in our guts, healthy commensal bacteria outnumber the human cells in the body. We have co-evolved with micro-organisms since the beginning, and they play a number of important roles in our overall health – from how the immune system functions, to what we weigh. Though research has identified vast microbial ecosystems in the epithelial membranes of the body (the orifices like the mouth and vagina, the GI tract, and the skin), we never thought that we’d find bacteria in the internal organs – and we hadn’t, until now.
Researchers at the University of North Carolina have found organisms living in the upper female reproductive tract, an environment that they previously thought was sterile.
Further, when they compared the microbial populations between women who had ovarian cancer with women who didn’t, they found different types of organisms colonizing both the ovaries and the fallopian tubes in the two populations. Though it was a small study, 25 women having surgery to remove their uterus, ovaries or fallopian tubes removed had swabs taken for bacterial populations from their ovaries and fallopian tubes. With genetic sequencing, researchers determined the type of bacteria that were predominant. The bacterial strains in women with ovarian cancer were more pathogenic than those in women without ovarian cancer. And although the numbers weren’t huge, bacteria were definitely present.
While it’s too early to tell, researchers are questioning whether these bacteria play a role in the development of ovarian cancer, or whether certain strains may be associated with different prognoses. Is the presence of cancer is what triggers the different population development? And could screening your ovarian or fallopian tube micro-organism population serve as a screening tool for ovarian cancer, a disease that is often caught in very late stages?
A number of questions remain, but the finding is intriguing.
In the growing field of assessing the human microbiome, this is an incredible finding. Not only do micro-organisms like bacteria, fungi, and viruses affect the health of our mucosal membranes and the immune system, they may also directly impact organ function.
A number of different human diseases have been linked to alterations in the microbiome. Autoimmune conditions like irritable bowel disease and rheumatoid arthritis develop when the microbiome is altered. Colon cancer risk increases with the number of antibiotic prescriptions a patient has had. And in the realm of female gynecological conditions, we know that certain strains of bacteria affect the inflammatory cascade in unique ways. Rhesus monkeys with endometriosis have intestinal bacterial populations that cause more systemic inflammation than those who don’t have endometriosis. Though it’s yet to be shown in humans, studies are suggesting that the gut microbiota may be crucially involved in the onset and progression of endometriosis in women.
In my mind, it’s not a far leap to suggest that the type of micro-organisms colonizing our ovaries and fallopian tubes may be linked with various gynecological conditions.
What does this mean for our patients?
It means that our treatment protocols are affecting our patients’ health in more ways than we have ever known.
Supporting a healthy microbiome is central to nearly every treatment protocol that leaves our office. In one way or another, the food we eat, our environmental exposures, lifestyle habits, supplements and medications that we take, all alter the microbiome. This is because what we do alters the cellular environment – which changes the type of bacteria, viruses, and fungi that inhabit our bodies. The more that we foster healthy microbial populations both inside and outside the human body, the more we are fostering healthy cellular and immune system activity overall. The relationship is reciprocal.
If you’d like to chat about how we can support a healthy microbial population in your body, or how to reduce inflammation and prevent your risk of long term chronic diseases like cancer, please contact us for a free 15 minute consultation.
Dr. Kali MacIsaac HBSc, ND