Stephenson Center doctor receives $2.3M grant to study role of bacteria

Dr. Mark Huycke

If, as is suspected, bacteria can trigger colon cancer, then doctors could find a way to stop it.

That's the gist of Dr. Mark M. Huycke's research at the Stephenson Cancer Center, part of OU Medicine. For his work, Huycke recently received a $2.3 million grant from the National Cancer Institute to study what role bacteria plays in causing colon cancer, which is the third-highest cause of cancer related deaths in the U.S.

"Humans are colonized with an ecology of bacteria, and they play a huge role in health and disease," Huycke said. "Through our research, we have learned that there are certain properties of bacteria that allow them to promote cancer."

Researchers suspect that bacteria in the colon carry out processes that trigger an immune response in the body. This is when humans can be susceptible to cancer.

"It's that immune response that can lead to the development of cancer," Huycke said.

Huycke will study Enterococcus faecalis, though it alone may not actually be the bacteria that causes colon cancer. What it does to is create an immune response, which is why Huycke finds it important.

If the link between bacteria and colon cancer can be better understood, then it is possible doctors could help patients prevent it through probiotics, or bacteria that promotes health.

Huycke is experienced at studying the links between bacteria and cancer. While initially studying the links between bacteria and infection, he noticed a possible link to cancer, instead.

"Part of the reason I went into academic medicine was to be able to conduct research to better understand how disease processes develop," Huycke said. "Researchers in this field have made good progress over the past 20 years. Before then, we didn't have the technology available to do the sophisticated tests that we are able to do now. What we're finding out is that bacteria's link to cancer is indeed very complicated. But I think there are some fundamental underlying mechanisms that we can figure out that will allow us to grapple with the complexity of it."

The Oklahoma Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust (TSET) is also supporting Huycke's work.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Oklahoma recorded the ninth highest rate of colon cancer per 100,000 people in 2016 at 42.5. Kentucky had the highest rate, 47.5.

Colorectal cancer is the fourth-highest cause of cancer deaths in Oklahoma, with 17 per 100,000 in 2016. Nationally, the rate is 13.7.

The primary way of screening for colon cancer, a colonoscopy, doesn't always work, Huycke said. That's what makes developing a new prevention method so important.