Giving common antibiotic before radiation may help body fight cancer

The antibiotic vancomycin’s effect on the gut microbiome in can boost the body’s immune response.

The antibiotic vancomycin alters the gut microbiome in a way that can help prime the immune system to more effectively attack tumor cells after radiation therapy. A new study in mice from researchers at the Abramson Cancer Center found giving a dose of the common antibiotic not only helped immune cells kill tumors that were directly treated with radiation, but also kill cancer cells that were further away in the body, paving the way for researchers to test the approach in a human clinical trial. The findings are published in The Journal of Clinical Investigation.

rendering of the microbiome inside the gut

In recent years, multiple studies have shown that giving patients higher doses of radiation over the course of fewer treatments—called hypo-fractionated radiotherapy—can induce a stronger immune response in patients. In addition, hypo-fractionated doses have the ability to impact other tumors cells in the body that weren’t directly treated with radiation. This is known as the abscopal effect.

“Our study shows that vancomycin seems to boost the effect of the hypo-fractionated radiation itself on the targeted tumor site while also aiding the abscopal effect, helping the immune system fight tumors away from the treatment site,” says the study’s senior author Andrea Facciabene, an associate professor of radiation oncology at the Perelman School of Medicine.

Facciabene and his team chose vancomycin for a few specific reasons. First, it mostly targets gram-positive bacteria, making it disruptive to the gut microbiome. Second, it’s a large molecule, which means it stays in the gut and does not circulate to the rest of the body the way other antibiotics do. The fact that it is not systemic limits the impact it has on the rest of the body’s microbiome.

Read more at Penn Medicine News.