The Secret to This Deadly Cancer Lurks on Your Skin

One of the deadliest cancers is pancreatic cancer.

Doctors will diagnose more than 56,000 cases this year. That's about 3% of all cancers.

However, there are two big issues here:

First, although cancer rates overall have fallen, the number of new pancreatic cases has increased.

Second, pancreatic cancer only has an 8% five-year survival rate.

That's why a new study published in the journal Nature could be a game changer. It focused on a treatment for pancreatic cancer that reduced tumor weight by up to 40%. It also boosted the efficacy of a chemotherapy drug by as much as 25%.

At the heart of this new treatment – fungus.

More specifically, the researchers looked at a type of common fungi called Malassezia. Much like the many types of bacteria that live on our skin, Malassezia is harmless in this state on our skin. It can sometimes cause things like dandruff, eczema, and some types of acne.

But Malassezia also lives in our guts.

Longtime readers know I've written many times about our gut microbiome. It's a collection of bacteria that control digestion and regulate our immune system. But far less studied is something called the mycobiome... the fungi that live alongside these gut bugs.

Malassezia is one of these fungi and the subject of the new study out of the New York University School of Medicine. The researchers ran several experiments on mice to see how Malassezia might lead to pancreatic cancer. They saw the fungi migrate from the gut up through the pancreatic ducts and into the pancreas.

They found that the more fungi in the pancreas, the worse and more aggressive the cancer.

What's most interesting is that, although the study looked at mice, similar levels of the fungi also appeared in human samples.

The researchers believe that the mechanism of action springs from the complement cascade. This is a normal process within our immune system. And the idea is backed up by other prior studies indicating that Malassezia triggers the complement cascade in several ways.

The complement cascade fights invading cells. Afterward, it signals that the infection is gone and encourages cells to grow again. The fungi could turn this cascade on to encourage unregulated growth in nearby cells... In other words, causing cancer.

Even better, the researchers found what can combat the fungi and the cancer. They used a powerful antifungal medication called amphotericin B. The researchers found that amphotericin B boosts the effectiveness of chemotherapy drugs and it reduces tumor weight. But it has serious side effects, including kidney damage, liver failure, and irregular heartbeat.

We see this as a similar mechanism to the creation of bacterial infections like methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA. This deadly infection results when a strain of S. aureus can survive regular medications and spreads unchecked in the body. But we already have S. aureus all over us – it's on our skin.

But here's the thing... not all Malassezia are bad. Other studies indicate that in some conditions, Malassezia actually protects against certain bacterial infections. We still don't fully understand how this fungus – or any of the species that live in us – interact with our immune systems. Some doctors even think fungi are at the heart of diseases like inflammatory bowel disease and Crohn's disease.

Don't panic about how much fungi you might have. The main takeaway is that you need to pay attention to your overall health to make sure your bacteria and fungi are all healthy.

That involves things like watching your diet. Foods like yogurt, fruits, and vegetables all keep our gut fungi healthy. Treat your mycobiome the same as your bacteria – keep stress levels low and exercise regularly.

Plus, folks at a healthy weight had a greater range of types of fungi than those who were obese... that likely means a better functioning immune system. However, studies on fungi in our guts are still in their infancy.

We expect to see more focus on the mycobiome in the future. But for now, take care of all your gut bugs – bacteria and fungi alike – by eating well and maintaining a healthy weight.

What We're Reading...

Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
October 8, 2019