Bladder Cancer and the Microbiome

Last updated: November 2018

The microbiome is an area of research that is booming, and scientists continue to uncover clues to how the bacteria that live on and in our bodies may help prevent or contribute to many different diseases, including bladder cancer.

What is the microbiome?

The microbiome refers to the variety of microbes (including bacteria, fungi, and viruses) that live in a particular environment, such as the human body. Researchers have found that we have 10 times as many microbial cells as we do human cells. Most of the microbes do not cause disease, and the microbiome is important for many healthy functions, including:1

  • Assisting in the digestion process
  • Producing vitamins
  • Processing medicines
  • Detoxifying the body
  • Supporting a healthy lining in the gut
  • Boosting the immune system

A healthy microbiome is one that is diverse in a variety of microbes. Diversity is important in several ways. Different microbes play different roles in supporting healthy functioning of the body, and the variety also keeps the peace, keeping opportunistic microbes from multiplying and causing harm. An imbalance in the microbiome, called dysbiosis, has been associated with the development of a number of diseases, including inflammatory bowel disease, multiple sclerosis, type 1 and type 2 diabetes, allergies, asthma, autism, and cancer.2

How does the microbiome influence the development of cancer?

Findings from recent research suggest that the human microbiome can influence the development of cancer, and it is estimated that microorganisms may contribute to up to 20% of all cancers. The two most well-known associations are the bacteria Helicobacter pylori, which is associated with the development of gastric cancer, and some types of human papillomavirus (HPV), which are associated with the development of cervical cancer.2

While there is still much that is unknown about how microbes influence the development of cancer, scientists believe there are most likely several ways this may occur, including:2

  • Some strains of bacteria may produce toxins that can directly damage DNA of their human host
  • Some microorganisms may manipulate certain pathways or processes that may increase the growth of cancer cells
  • The microbiome of the gastrointestinal tract can create chronic inflammation, which may interfere with the immune system’s ability to detect and destroy cancer cells
  • The metabolism of certain foods or other substances by bacteria may create harmful substances that promote the growth of cancer

What research has been done on the microbiome and bladder cancer?

While in the past the bladder and urine were considered to be sterile in healthy people, research has found that the urinary tract does harbor microorganisms (even in healthy individuals). Most of the studies on the microbiome and the bladder have been focused on conditions such as type 2 diabetes, overactive bladder, urinary incontinence, interstitial cystitis, sexually transmitted infections, and chronic pelvic pain syndrome. However, a recent study specifically looked at the microbiome from urine samples of 12 male patients diagnosed with bladder cancer and compared them to 11 healthy, age-matched individuals.2

The study found that while the diversity and overall microbiome composition were not significantly different between the two groups, there were a few differences. Those with bladder cancer were more likely to have Fusobacterium, which is a possible pathogen that could promote cancer growth. The healthy subjects were more likely to have an abundance of Veillonella, Streptococcus, and Corynebacterium.2

Room for additional research

While this study is exciting in that it’s the first to begin to map our which microorganisms may play a role in bladder cancer, the study only included a limited number of participants. Additional research is needed to confirm or refute the findings. In addition, this study only used male participants. While bladder cancer is three times more common in men than in women, additional research is needed to determine if similar differences in the microbiome may play a role in the development of bladder cancer in women.2

Further research is also needed to understand which microorganisms may play a beneficial role in protecting against cancer, and which ones may be harmful.2 In addition, more studies are needed to understand how to influence the microbiome to benefit the bladder, such as through diet or the use of probiotics.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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