Unhealthy gut sets stage for breast cancer spread

Discovery could someday help identify patients at higher risk for metastatic breast cancer

It’s a key question scientists have long sought to answer -- why does breast cancer metastasize or spread in some women, but not others?

A new study suggests part of the answer may be hidden not in the breast itself, but in the gut.

Inside our stomach and intestines are a collection of microorganisms known as the gut microbiome. The mix can be healthy or unhealthy, and new research finds, that could impact the risk from breast cancer.

Dr. Melanie Rutkowski is an associate professor of microbiology, immunology, and cancer biology at UVA Health in Charlottesville, Virginia. She and her team found an unhealthy gut appears to make it easier for breast cancer to spread.

“What we found was is that having an unhealthy gut microbiome actually changed the breast tissue even before the tumor was present,” said Rutkowski. “It’s kind of setting the stage so that when a tumor is there, it’s got all the resources it needs now to metastasize to other parts of the body.”

Rutkowski hopes their work can ultimately help doctors identify which patients are at higher risk for their cancer to spread.

“We hope that in the long term, we can use some of our findings to develop more tailored therapies to prevent metastatic disease,” Rutkowski said.

In the meantime, the study highlights the importance of keeping the gut healthy.

Rutkowski said there are many factors that can impact the gut negatively, including a poor diet -- especially one low in fiber and high in red meat, sugar, or highly processed grains.

Stress, not exercising, smoking, and alcohol use also have a negative impact.

On the flip side, eating a healthy diet can improve your gut health. Foods to focus on include whole grains, fruits, vegetables, yogurt with probiotics, fermented foods, and honey. Getting regular exercise and reducing stress can also help.

Rutkowski said a grant from Susan G. Komen has made her research possible.

“Their support is instrumental for researchers like myself to advance the field forward in terms of breast cancer research,” said Rutkowski. “They’re identifying some of the most innovative research that they can and they’re funding them, and I think that that’s the way you’re going to move it forward leaps and bounds in terms of identifying a cure.”

To learn more about Rutkowski’s research, click here