{Taj Pharma Cancer Awareness Initiative} Unraveling the Link: Gut Bacterium’s Genetic ‘Fingerprints’ in Bowel Cancer


In a groundbreaking revelation, researchers from The Netherlands, the UK, France, and the USA, funded by a £20 million Cancer Research UK Grand Challenge award, have uncovered a potential link between a common gut bacterium and bowel cancer. The findings, published in Nature, shed light on how a toxin released by a strain of E. coli leaves unique ‘fingerprints’ of DNA damage on gut cells, directly connecting it to genetic changes driving cancer development.

The Role of Colibactin:

Colibactin and Bowel Cancer Decoding the Genetic Connection
Colibactin and Bowel Cancer Decoding the Genetic Connection

The focus of this study was on a specific strain of E. coli that produces a toxin known as colibactin. This toxin, found more frequently in the stool samples of individuals with bowel cancer, was suspected of causing DNA damage. To validate this, scientists utilized human intestinal organoids, miniature replicas of the gut, and exposed them to colibactin-producing E. coli. The results revealed a significant increase in DNA damage compared to organoids exposed to regular E. coli.

Distinctive DNA ‘Fingerprints’:

Remarkably, the DNA damage caused by colibactin exhibited specific patterns akin to fingerprints. This unique signature was then analyzed in over 5500 tumor samples from the UK and the Netherlands. The colibactin fingerprints were notably present in bowel cancer tumors, indicating a direct correlation between the bacterial toxin and cancer development.

Implications for Early Detection:

The study suggests that detecting these specific DNA damage patterns in the cells lining the gut could potentially serve as a marker for identifying individuals at higher risk of bowel cancer. This groundbreaking insight could complement existing bowel cancer screening tests, offering a more nuanced approach to risk assessment.

Prevalence and Impact:

Bowel cancer remains a significant health concern, with approximately 42,000 new cases reported in the UK annually. Despite being the second most common cause of cancer death, understanding early triggers is crucial for prevention and early detection. The microbiome, comprising trillions of microorganisms, including bacteria, viruses, and fungi, has become a focal point in researching the development of bowel cancer.

Professor Hans Clevers’ Insights:

Professor Hans Clevers and his team at the Hubrecht Institute played a pivotal role in this research, focusing on the role of colibactin-producing E. coli. The distinct DNA damage patterns observed in bowel cancer tumors, caused by this bacterium, highlight a novel avenue for understanding the disease’s origins.

Beyond Colibactin: Exploring Other Bacterial Toxins:

With the confirmation of colibactin’s role, researchers are now on a quest to identify other bacterial toxins from the gut that might induce similar effects. This pursuit aims to unveil the broader spectrum of bacterial contributions to DNA damage, opening avenues for comprehensive research into preventing the development of bowel cancer.

The Grand Challenge Project:

This groundbreaking discovery is the first significant outcome of a £20 million Grand Challenge project, aimed at unraveling the intricate relationship between the microbiome and cancer risk, development, and treatment. The project, spearheaded by Cancer Research UK, signifies a leap forward in understanding the complex interplay between gut bacteria and cancer.

Patient Advocacy and Hope:

John Barnes, a patient advocate for the Grand Challenge project and a cancer survivor, emphasizes the potential of early detection in saving lives. This research offers hope that identifying specific DNA damage patterns could lead to earlier diagnosis and more effective treatment, reducing the suffering of those affected by bowel cancer.

Expert Opinions:

Professor Philip Quirke, a Grand Challenge co-investigator at the University of Leeds, underscores the importance of understanding the causes of bowel cancer. The role of colibactin represents a crucial step, prompting the research team to explore other bacteria and toxins associated with bowel cancer, providing a more comprehensive picture of risk factors.

Public Health Recommendations:

Nicola Smith, a senior health information manager at Cancer Research UK, emphasizes the proactive steps individuals can take to reduce their risk of bowel cancer. Lifestyle choices, such as not smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, and adopting a diet high in fiber and low in red and processed meat, can contribute to lowering the risk. Additionally, participating in bowel screening programs can aid in early detection.

In conclusion, the discovery of a direct link between a specific gut bacterium and bowel cancer represents a significant milestone in cancer research. The identification of colibactin’s role and its unique DNA damage fingerprints opens new avenues for early detection and personalized risk assessment. As research progresses, the goal is to unravel the broader landscape of bacterial contributions to DNA damage, paving the way for innovative strategies to prevent and treat bowel cancer.


1. Can detecting DNA damage fingerprints become a routine screening method for bowel cancer?

  • The current research suggests the potential for DNA damage fingerprints to be part of routine screening in the future, enhancing the identification of individuals at higher risk.

2. How prevalent is colibactin-producing E. coli in the general population?

  • Colibactin-producing E. coli is found more often in the stool samples of individuals with bowel cancer. Further studies will reveal its prevalence in the general population.

3. Are there lifestyle changes individuals can make to reduce the risk of bowel cancer?

  • Yes, adopting a healthy lifestyle, including not smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, and a diet high in fiber, can contribute to lowering the risk of bowel cancer.

4. What is the significance of the Grand Challenge project in cancer research?

  • The Grand Challenge project aims to unravel the complex relationship between the microbiome and cancer, providing insights that can revolutionize cancer prevention and treatment.

5. How does early detection impact the treatment and prognosis of bowel cancer?

  • Early detection significantly improves the likelihood of successful treatment, making it crucial in enhancing the prognosis for individuals with bowel cancer.