Helicobacter pylori is linked to both gastric cancer and MALT lymphoma (a form of lymphoma involving the mucosa-associated lymphoid tissue, often in the stomach); Chlamydia pneumoniae to lung cancer; Streptococcus bovis and/or Enteroccocus faecalis to colon cancer.
Although research has shown that certain bacteria are associated with human cancers, their role in cancer is of complex. Convincing evidence links some species to the formation of cancer while others appear promising in the diagnosis, prevention or treatment of cancers. However, you might wonder how bacteria infection could lead to cancer. Here I provide you some insights.
Bacteria may cause cancer through:
1. Chronic infection. Some bacterial toxins can negatively impact the process that controls the normal cell cycle and cell growth, others disrupt the cellular signaling pathways that regulate normal cell death, consequently promoting cancerous growth. In addition, infection-induced immune response may release immune modulating substances from inflammatory cells, contributing to carcinogenesis.
2. DNA damage. Bacteria can produce free radicals – very unstable but highly reactive with other molecules. They can bind to DNA and cause DNA mutation, thereby altering the genes that control normal cell division and cell death. Cancer is initiated when uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells takes place.
3. Weakened or suppressed immune system. The immune system is an important line of defense for any toxins or diseases including cancer. Toxins or pathogens sometimes can get away from the host’s immune system to survive, and then modify one’s immune function. When its function is compromised, the immune system no longer recognizes and fights bacteria or toxins as foreign bodies, nor gets rid of them.
That being said, don’t panic. A majority of individuals will not develop cancer after infection by a cancer-causing agent. However, be conscious and alert. The facts are:
- Certain individuals are more susceptible to cancer-causing infections.
- Incidence of certain cancers may vary among populations or geographic regions.
- It often takes years or decades between acquiring the infection and getting cancer.
Photo illustration: Color-enhanced scanning electron micrograph showing Salmonella typhimurium (red) invading cultured human cells
Photo credit: Rocky Mountain Laboratories, NIAID, NIH