An organ once deemed "sterile" may actually be teeming with fungi, and certain varieties there may be promoting cancer. New research in the journal Nature notes that even though it's already known bacteria is able to move from the gut to the pancreas, it wasn't clear whether fungi could do the same—until now. "Our new study is the first to confirm that fungi, too, make that trip, and that related fungal population changes promote tumor inception and growth," study co-author George Miller says in a release from NYU, which led the research on this "fungal invasion." Scientists examined both humans with pancreatic cancer and fecal samples from mice with and without the disease, and found "an increase in fungi of about 3,000-fold" in the cancerous tissue compared with healthy tissue.
One fungus in particular was found in especially abundant numbers: malassezia, which can cause eczema and dandruff and has already been linked to skin and colorectal cancers. When the mice with cancer were treated with a strong antifungal drug, their tumor weights dropped between 20% and 40% over a 30-week period. "We have to move from thinking about tumor cells alone to thinking of the whole neighborhood that the tumor lives in," a Dana-Farber Cancer Institute Researcher tells the New York Times. The research is being welcomed because fungal populations may be able to serve as a biomarker for pancreatic cancer, which doesn't have current early screening or detection methods. "This is an enormous opportunity for intervention and prevention," a Memorial Sloan Kettering scientist says. (Alex Trebek is currently fighting the disease.)