Next piece of the puzzle found on how our ‘good’ bacteria help protect us against ovarian cancer

Today, research funded by The Eve Appeal and Horzion 2020 was published in Clinical Epigenetics. The researchers found a causal link between the 'good' bacteria in our vaginas and the 'software' to our cells, the epigenome. Our Communications Officer, Lydia, blogs about the findings and why they give us even more hope to believe that the microbiome can be used to help us prevent ovarian cancer.

The microbiome, a whole miniature world living all over our bodies. TRILLIONS of tiny bacteria, or microbes, live over our skin, inside our mouth, gut and even inside our vaginas. In fact there are ten times more bacteria in/on our bodies than there are our own cells. Sounds like I am writing a late Halloween blog doesn’t it?

In fact, our invisible tiny friends are important in keeping us healthy and are our first barrier in protecting us from infection. In the vagina it is the microbiome, specifically the types of bacteria called ‘lactobacilli’, which help stop you getting infections like bacterial vaginosis and pelvic inflammatory disease. The lactobacilli creates a low pH, and it is this low pH that makes the vagina a really inhospitable, and quite literally acidic, place for other ‘bad’ bacteria and viruses, the ones we definitely don’t want.

In recent years we have been learning more and more about the microbiome and the important role it plays in keeping us healthy, yet a lot of this research has focused on the ‘good’ bacteria in our gut- we’ve all seen the adverts. Last year some research by Prof Martin Widschwendter at UCL, funded by The Eve Appeal and Horizon 2020, looked into the important role of the ‘good’ bacteria in our vaginas- with the view that it might be linked to cancer.

The team found that women with a higher risk of ovarian cancer from having a BRCA gene mutation (makes women up to 40x more likely to get ovarian cancer), had lower levels of ‘good’ bacteria in their vagina. Scientific thinking is that infections up our gynae tract, such as pelvic inflammatory disease, can sometimes lead to the development of ovarian cancer.

If our first line of defence against infections is impaired and we have less ‘good’ bacteria, and a higher pH, then nasty infections are more likely to sneak their way in and make us ill, and these may sometimes cause damage that can develop into ovarian cancer. Now the research team, ever ambitious, is wondering whether our microbiome can be used to turn the tables and reduce the risk of ovarian cancer.

Their next step in the research plan has been published today, which paints an important part of the picture in our understanding of how the microbiome might be influencing the chance of someone developing ovarian cancer, and what else is involved in this process. Prof Widschwendter and his team have found a strong link between the amount of ‘good’ bacteria (lactobacilli) in the vagina and the ‘software’ in our cells, the epigenome.

Every cell in our body has the same DNA, which we got (50/50) from our mother and father when we were conceived. Our DNA is like the blueprint of our body, it holds all of the information for every cell to know who to be and what to do. Our full DNA is in each cell, yet they all end up different, and this is where the epigenome comes in. The epigenome enables each cell to read the right bits of code to know how to act and develop into different things, our lungs for example have different cells to our skin. It is the switch that turns on or off parts of our DNA in each cell allowing the right instructions to be read and acted on.

Now, it is already known that the epigenome can be changed or altered due to lifestyle factors like diet, smoking, or hormones and all of that stuff we get warned about. But, what today’s research found was that the epigenome and the microbiome are linked. The team of researchers developed a method, called the WID-Lo index, whereby they could use the epigenome to work out whether a woman would have low or high levels of ‘good’ bacteria, lactobacilli, in their vagina.

Their research showed a strong enough link between the two to agree that one affects the other. The thinking here is that our lifestyle has an impact on the epigenome, which then affects what DNA is turned on and off, leading to unwanted changes in the cells. It is likely that these changed cells are creating an environment that is less suitable for lactobacilli to live and grow, which may lead to an increased risk of getting infections and consequently the development of ovarian cancer.

Today’s research helps us understand a bit more about the relationship between our own cells and our microbiome and how ovarian cancer may develop and gives us even greater confidence that we may be able to use the microbiome to reduce the risk of ovarian cancer- amazing!

This is where you come in, we at The Eve Appeal and the researchers want to move forward to the next step of this important microbial journey in preventing ovarian cancer. For the next phase Prof Widschwendter wants to look at whether women with lower levels of lactobacilli have changes to the cells in their Fallopian Tubes (when ovarian cancer often develops). If so, all of this mounting evidence would suggest that improving someone’s microbiome (with a probiotic or by altering their hormones) will create less unwanted changes to the cells in the Fallopian Tubes and reduce the risk of ovarian cancer. Which could save lives.

You can help fund this next phase of research by donating to our Christmas Eve Appeal.