Gut bacteria may explain why more young people are getting colon cancer — and how to prevent it
A new study analyzed the gut microbiomes of people who get colon cancer young versus those who get the disease later in life.
Some bacteria strains are more present in the guts of young colon cancer patients than in older ones.
Colon cancer in people under 55 has risen over the last two decades.
The gut microbiome, or the colony of bacteria living inside our colon, might be an important key to help determine whether a young person will develop colon cancer, a new study suggests.
Scientists have known certain bacteria can disturb the lining of the colon, which may result in the formation of tumors and the development of cancer. Building upon this, researchers at Georgetown University set out to find which bacteria strains are more present in the guts of young people who develop colon cancer.
Georgetown researchers analyzed the bacteria in the tumors of 36 people under 45 with colon cancer versus those of 27 people over 65 with the disease.
They detected 917 unique bacterial and fungal species in the tumors; several bacteria, including Cladosporium, were more present in the guts of younger colon cancer patients, while others, such as Moraxella osloensis, were more present in the older patients.
"We have trillions of bacteria residing in our body, including in our gut, some of which are implicated in the development of colorectal cancer, hence we think the microbiome may be an important factor in the development of the disease," Benjamin Adam Weinberg, an associate professor of medicine at Georgetown and lead author of the study, said in a release.
Weinberg told Axios his team's findings indicate the makeup of the gut microbiome might determine how soon a person will develop colon cancer, but it's too soon to say for sure. And since diet and environmental factors impact the makeup of the microbiome, better understanding what it looks like in colon cancer patients can help determine what foods to avoid for prevention.
Weinberg and other researchers will present their findings at the American Society of Clinical Oncology 2023 annual meeting in Chicago in June.
People are getting diagnosed with colon cancer at younger ages
More young people are getting diagnosed with — and dying from — colon cancer. The proportion of colorectal cancer in people under 55 doubled between 1995 to 2019, from 11% to 20%, per the American Cancer Society, during the same time overall incidence of colon cancer decreased in the US.
Scientists predict the disease will be the leading cause of cancer death among people under 50 by 2030.
Colon cancer has a high survival rate when caught early, but young people typically aren't diagnosed until the disease has reached an advanced stage: over half of people under 50 receive a diagnosis at stage three or four, compared to just 40% of people over 50 diagnosed at those later stages.
They have suspicions, but researchers aren't sure why more young people are getting colon cancer. Meat-heavy diets — such as the popular carnivore and keto diets — might increase the risk for colon cancer, per the National Institutes of Health. Rising rates of obesity among young people could also factor into the trend.
Doctors are calling for increased colon cancer testing, particularly for people with a family history or risk factors. Scientists recently identified four distinct symptoms — abdominal pain, rectal bleeding, diarrhea, and iron deficiency — young people with colon cancer are more likely to experience.
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