Microbiome researchers find bacteria in reproductive organs linked to ovarian cancer

A woman pushes a cart in a hospital hallway.
Environmental services worker Elissa Marty pushes her cart of cleaning supplies to a Medical ICU unit at St. Mary's Hospital at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., in Dec. 2020. New research from the clinic could help save lives lost by ovarian cancer.
Evan Frost | MPR News

More than 20,000 people are diagnosed with ovarian cancer each year across the country, and more than 12,000 will die of the disease. But new research from the Mayo Clinic could help save some of those lives.

Dr. Marina Walther-Antonio is a microbiome researcher with the Mayo’s Center for Individualized Medicine and an author of the study. She joined Cathy to explain how our microbiomes could affect our reproductive organs.

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: More than 20,000 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer every year across this country, and more than 12,000 will die of the disease. But new research from the Mayo Clinic could help save some of those lives. Dr. Marina Walther-Antonio is a microbiome researcher with the Mayo Clinic's Center for Individualized Medicine. She's the author of this study, and we welcome her to Minnesota Now. Doctor, it's a pleasure.

MARINA WALTHER-ANTONIO: Thank you for having me.

CATHY WURZER: Your study looked at the microbiome of the reproductive tract. And I think when we think of the microbiome, we usually think about gut health, right? What does it mean when referring to the reproductive tract?

MARINA WALTHER-ANTONIO: Yeah, you're right. Most studies tend to look at the gut microbiome, which we also do. But because we tend to focus on women's health and obstetric and gynecologic cancers, we thought, well, we should look at the microbiome closer to the system we're studying. And so that's the vaginal microbiome, and it's the uterine microbiome and fallopian tubes and ovaries and anything we can study as valuable.

Because I am part of the Department of Surgery and OB-GYN, I am able to have access to surgical specimens, and so we are in a position where we can do those kinds of studies that are more comprehensive and study microbiome in the different organs, so that's something we try to take advantage of.

CATHY WURZER: So you were looking at different types of bacteria in the reproductive tract and how much of each were there. Did you find-- are they different in patients with ovarian cancer than in patients without ovarian cancer? Is it different in patients with early stages versus late stages? What did you find?

MARINA WALTHER-ANTONIO: Yeah, correct. So we have published before on a similar study in endometrial cancer looking for microbial markers for that disease. And I was giving one time a talk, and Scott Kaufmann, who is the director of the Mayo Clinic Ovarian SPORE here at Mayo, was there at that talk and said, you absolutely have to do this for ovarian cancer because it could really be a game changer for understanding of the disease.

And so he really convinced me that was something I should really focus on, so we did. We found that those markers were actually stronger or more evident in early stage ovarian cancer, which is really promising to try to identify this disease earlier.

And then we also found that we could identify microbes that were predictive of how the patients respond to treatment in the future in a two year and four year follow up, indicating that there might be value also in thinking about these microbes as indicators of response to treatment and therapies. So again, it's a small study still. It's 64 patients, and we'll have to validate these findings and expand to other groups of patients, but really encouraging to see these results.

CATHY WURZER: Could this lead to, say, something like a pap smear for ovarian cancer, similar to what we have for cervical cancer?

MARINA WALTHER-ANTONIO: Well, that's always a possibility in the future. However, the challenge with that is that ovarian cancer, fortunately, is not as common of a disease as cervical cancer is, and so putting all patients through or all women through a test like this-- there needs to be other thoughts that go into that in terms of cost and causing anxiety and all sorts of things.

So identifying a patient population, perhaps those that have a family history of ovarian cancer and are BRCA negative, for example, but want to know more about their risk and what a monitor could be a potential application for this type of knowledge.

CATHY WURZER: How might this lead to better understanding of other gynecological cancers?

MARINA WALTHER-ANTONIO: So we are also investigating endometrial cancer and try to understand that. I think it's a more holistic way of looking at it. I'm a big fan of Einstein, and what he said is that things should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler. And so we want to make sure that we don't rule out things prematurely and include them in these studies.

And it could very well be that the microbiome holds answers that haven't been found before because it hasn't been investigated before. And so if the microbiome is a contributor to ovarian cancer and other gynecologic diseases, we certainly want to know about that so that we can utilize it to our benefit.

CATHY WURZER: Really interesting study. Where can people get more information? On the CIM's website, the Center for Individualized Medicine's website?

MARINA WALTHER-ANTONIO: Yeah, correct. You can go to the website, and you'll see some article that was produced. They can also access, actually, the original article, which is open access.

CATHY WURZER: Great. I appreciate your time. Thank you so much.

MARINA WALTHER-ANTONIO: Thank you. Appreciate it.

CATHY WURZER: Likewise. Dr. Marina Walther-Antonio is with the Mayo Clinic Center for Individualized Medicine.

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