Probiotics and Cancer Prevention as a Part of the Healthy Microbiome


Probiotics and Cancer Prevention as a Part of the Healthy Microbiome

Probiotics–beneficial   microorganisms–must   be   understood   within the context of the microbiome and their interaction with the human host. The microbiome was first mentioned around 400 BC by Hippocrates, the father of medicine. Although he did not define the microbiome explicitly, he is quoted as saying “death sits in the bowels” and “bad digestion is the root of all evil”. These statements highlight what we believe today, namely the diet, the bowel, and overall health are intimately linked! The term “microbiome” was actually coined in 2001 by Joshua Lederberg to emphasize that microorganism inhabiting the body influence mammalian cellular processes and must be considered part of the genome.

The human microbiome, which contains more than 100 trillion bacteria, fungi, and viruses, has a significant impact on physiological processes. About 90% of bacteria reside in the gastrointestinal tract in intimate contact with the human body, and they are influenced, both in composition and metabolism, by the foods eaten. Since the skin and intestinal microbiome contain greater than 100 fold genes than are present in mammalian cells, humans are literally sandwiched between layers of microbes that can influence our metabolism, and likely our health and lifespan. Knowledge about the importance of the microbiome is only beginning to emerge, although early studies of constituent microorganisms trace back to Antonie Philips van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723), a Dutch scientist and tradesman known for improving the microscope lenses and establishing the science of microbiology.

Microorganisms are involved in interrelationships with the human body: mutualism (win-win), commensalism (win-neutral), parasitism/predation (win-lose), amensalism (neutral-lose), or competition (lose-lose). More than a century ago, Metchnikoff observed for the first time that intestinal microbes are influenced on food intake, and it is possible to adopt dietary measures to modify microbial populations and to replace harmful microbes with useful microbes.

The characteristics of a “normal” or “healthy” microbiome remain ill defined, but this is an area of active investigation. Despite the efforts of the NIH Human Microbiome Project to define the microbiome in healthy individuals, little is known about the influence of age, ethnicity, eating behaviors, or other variables. We do recognize, however, there is variation in response in different populations. The interaction between one’s microbiome and microbiota with particular genetic background and diet makes nutrition a fascinating science. The result of these interactions likely has a crucial effect in disease prevention, aging, and increase healthy lifespan. The Division of Cancer Prevention at the National Cancer Institute recognizes the importance of the microbiome in cancer risk and prevention; there are several research awards in its portfolio to examine the effects of individual differences in gut bacterial community composition, genes and race on hormone metabolism after dietary intervention, and how the gut microbiome influences gene expression in relation to cancer prevention.

Joise Angelina
Journal of Probiotics & Health
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