Dr. Yiping W. Han of Columbia University College of Dental Medicine
Dr. Yiping W. Han of Columbia University College of Dental Medicine

By Timothy Hyland


A recent study from researchers at Columbia University has confirmed a previously suspected link between a common oral bacteria and the development of colon cancer.

The research, published in the March 2019 edition of EMBO Reports, proved that the oral bacteria F. nucleatum – a major culprit in the development of plaque and periodontal disease – also plays a significant role in accelerating the growth of highly aggressive colon cancers. The work opens up a new understanding of how these colon cancers develop, and could ultimately lead to treatments for a disease that now stands as the second-leading cause of death in the United States.

Led by Yiping W. Han, Ph.D., a professor of microbial sciences at Columbia University College of Dental Medicine, the research team set out to build on work that had already established a link between colon cancer and F. nucleatum. Researchers had previously concluded that a full third of all colorectal cancers were associated with F. nucleatum, and in one recent study, Dr. Han and her team helped explain why: that bacteria, they found, is responsible for creating a molecule, called FadA adhesin, that seems to stimulate cancerous activity in colon cells.


The oral bacteria supercharges the development of cancer cells, helping explain why F. nucleatum has been linked so strongly to aggressive cancers.


It was an important new piece in the overall puzzle of colon cancer, but that work also left unanswered the question as to why FadA adhesin specifically seemed to trigger growth in cancerous cells, and not healthy cells.

“We needed to find out why F. nucleatum only seemed to interact with the cancerous cells," Dr. Han said in a Columbia news release.

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The answer, it turns out, was found in something that cancer-prone cells have but healthy colon cells lack—specifically, a problematic protein known as Annexin A1.

That protein, they say, serves to fuel growth of cancer. Additionally, they found that the oral bacteria, in turn, spurred additional growth of Annexin A1. In essence, they say, the oral bacteria supercharges the development of cancer cells, helping explain why F. nucleatum has been linked so strongly to aggressive cancers.


A Feedback Loop

"We identified a positive feedback loop that worsens the cancer progression,” Dr. Han explained.  "We propose a two-hit model, where genetic mutations are the first hit. F. nucleatum serves as the second hit, accelerating the cancer signaling pathway and speeding tumor growth.”

The American Cancer Society forecasts that more than 100,000 new cases of colon cancer will be diagnosed this year, and that more than 50,000 people will die from the disease. However, the mortality rate for colon cancer has been dropping, in large part because of better diagnostic tools and treatments.

Dr. Han's new study may help further improve both diagnosis and treatment, as its findings related to Annexin A1 could prove useful in the development of a biomarker for identifying certain cancers, as well as a target for new treatments.


Author: Contributing writer Timothy Hyland has more than 20 years’ experience as a writer, reporter, and editor. His work has also appeared in Fast Company, Roll Call, Philadelphia Business Journal, and the Washington Times.

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