The Human Micro Biome

There is a growing recognition that we as a species, humans that is, are not a single organism but a community of organisms living in synchrony. As scientists have recognized for many years, the human gut, skin, and digestive tract are colonized by trillions of bacteria, fungi and other microbes. What we did not realize until recently, was how important these organisms are to our health and well-being

The microenvironment of the human gastrointestinal tract reflects the interplay between bacteria, our diet, intestinal digestive enzymes, lipids, polysaccharides, amino acids, and the by-products of metabolism. The specific make-up of each individual reflects their environment, diet, and family heritage. Indeed, our bacterial flora are transmitted to us by our mothers, who prior to the advent of pasteurized baby-foods, pre-chewed their infant’s food.

More to the point, we now realize that bacterial infections and exposures to foreign antigens early in life protect and prepare us for a healthy adult life. Many modern maladies, such as asthma, diabetes, hypertension, even possibly autism and schizophrenia, may reflect infections, immune responses and the timing thereof. It has been suggested that infections with parasites modulate our immune response. In our increasingly clean environment, devoid of hookworms, tapeworms, and the like, our overactive immune system creates autoimmunity in the form of rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus and other maladies.

This reflects the growing recognition that human biology is in fact human ecology. The importance of this cannot be overstated when we examine human tumor biology. We are continually bombarded by the teachings of a cadre of scientists who believe whole heartedly that they can answer the puzzle of human cancer by examining the intricacies of individual human cancer cells, primarily at the level of DNA.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

Take for example just one of the myriad of signaling pathways. Beta catenin is among the most potent tumor promoters. The deranged function of beta-catenin has been identified in several human tumors including prostate, lung and colon. Its closest association being that with colon cancer, wherein the loss of the APC protein (adenomatous polyposis coli), results in a particularly aggressive form of the disease.  The APC protein normally combines with axin and glycogen synthase kinase 3 beta (GSK3B) which all together function to regulate beta-catenin. It is the loss of APC that releases Beta-catenin and drives polyps to become cancerous.

However, upstream of this triumvirate of regulatory proteins are the integrin-ca cadherin proteins that communicate across the cell membrane. By changing the environment of the colon itself, we can influence the integrins, which regulate the cadherins. This in turn regulates beta catenin.  Thus, colon cancer may not arise from changes in our genetic makeup but instead may be driven by micro-environmental changes in the colonic milieu that alter cellular behavior and drive malignant transformation.

Again and again, we are forced to recognize the complexity of human biology. Now we realize that it is not just the genome to the transcriptome to the proteome, but indeed the micro biome.

Empowering Patients Towards Personalized Cancer Care

We have one more guest blogger to introduce during Dr. Nagourney’s absence: Patricia Merwin. Pat just celebrated her fourth anniversary of wellness after receiving a diagnosis of metastatic lung cancer.

In July of 2011, I attended a local TEDx conference in Long Beach, CA where Dr. Robert Nagourney gave a compelling talk about the nature of his work and the future of cancer care. TED is a global organization with a mission to “share ideas worth spreading,” a very appropriate forum for Dr. Nagourney to share his insights into cancer and how to defeat it.

Just three months earlier, at another TEDx event in the Netherlands, Dave deBronkart also gave a talk about the future of cancer care.  Dave deBronkart, better known as “E-patient Dave,” was diagnosed in January 2007 with a rare and terminal kidney cancer.  Given a dismal prognosis, Dave refused to cede his life to “standard care.”  Instead, he turned to a group of fellow patients online and found the information that eventually led to a treatment that saved his life. Dave deBronkart has since become a prolific online patient advocate and an internationally renowned speaker on the subject of patient empowerment and participatory medicine.

Like e-Patient Dave, I was given a “dismal prognosis” when I was diagnosed in 2008 with advanced metastatic lung cancer.  I too refused to cede my life to the standard protocol of the day. But it was not my health care providers who led me to Dr. Nagourney, it was a close friend.  Empowered with the knowledge that it was possible to improve my odds for survival, I chose functional profile testing (EVA-PCD®) to help determine my personalized treatment plan. It was a wise, informed decision resulting in the best possible outcome.  I have since become an online patient advocate, spreading the word to thousands of other patients so that they can become knowledgeable about this important test that could save their lives.

According to Dr. Nagourney, “Every system performs exactly as it was designed to perform. The current system of medical oncology provides adequate care for the average patient. There is little room for true, individualized care, for it disrupts the norm.”  But every patient with cancer has the same objective. To find the treatment that will work for “me.”  With a system skewed toward averages and away from the individual, the path to personalized medicine must be to empower the person with the most at stake – the patient. Dr. Nagourney says, “Today’s patient must become his or her own best advocate.”

More and more, patients are turning to online forums and other patient groups, not just for support, but to seek and share the latest news and information about treatments, side effects, tests, etc. If two heads are better than one, then thousands of engaged patients should, at the very least, provide good food for thought, “ideas worth spreading.”

Dr. Nagourney believes that “it’s in the online trenches where the real, personal war of cancer is being waged.  The old paradigm, that knowledge runs downhill from academics to practitioners to patients is being turned upside down as empowerment goes from the bottom up, not just from the top down.”  I’m sure e-Patient Dave would agree, along with countless other e-patients like him.