Neil S. Forbes of the UMass Amherst Chemical Engineering Department recently commented in a story in the Boston Globe about the use of the bacterium E. coli in a new test that accurately detects liver cancer in urine. He noted that bacteria naturally flourish in tumors. “You could tune them for difference cancer sites, different stages, use them for detection, use them for therapy,” Forbes said. Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology developed the new test by programming a probiotic Escherichia coli strain to detect cancer metastases in the liver. The team used these bacteria, also described in the May 27 issue of Science Translational Medicine, to detect cancer in mice.
For more than 12 years, Forbes has been working on non-pathogenic Salmonella bacteria that can use their own self-propulsion system to venture deep into tumors and deliver cancer-destroying agents, all without causing the vicious side effects of many chemotherapy treatments.
Forbes recently received a five-year, $1.56-million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to engineer what he calls “super-safe Salmonella bacteria” to act as Trojan Horses and deliver cancer-killing agents directly into tumors. His Salmonella vectors – armed with special cancer-ravaging peptides and a gene-disrupting ribonucleic acid (RNA) called shRNA – are designed to steal into cancer tumors, interrupt essential cell processes there, destroy cancer cells, eliminate cancer stems cells, reduce tumor volume, and block the formation of metastases.