Loyola Professor Pioneers Cancer Research Using Bacteria

Samir El Idrissi | The PHOENIXDr. Michael Burns, a Loyola biology professor, in his office in the Quinlan Life Science Center where he also works in his lab on his research concerning how cancer affects the microbiome — the total population of bacteria that lives in the human body.

Ideas for better cancer treatment constantly come up, but actually discovering and developing such a treatment is incredibly rare. One Loyola professor is working toward unlocking the next big cancer therapy using the bacteria that live in our bodies.

Dr. Michael Burns, a biology professor, has spent the past nine years leading research on the interactions between cancer and the microbiome — the microbiome is the population of bacteria that live in our body.

“Dr. Burns as a professor is absolutely amazing,” said Vane Ristove, a student and research assistant of Burns. “He has [a] vast understanding of biology and he has been approachable since the moment the class started.”

His research could lead to a treatment that would have far fewer side effects on cancer patients than radiation therapy or chemotherapy. On the other hand, he could also find a type of bacteria that increases mutations and the likelihood of cancer forming.

“There is very clear evidence that the microbiome could hypothetically play a role in lots of cancer types,” Burns said.

Some bacteria can cause random genetic changes, or mutations, in the human body, which can lead to cancer. But this same mechanism can be used to combat the very illness that comes from those changes. Burns said he needs to find exactly what that interaction could be, if any.

In his lab, Burns and 10 other students are currently testing that hypothesis and studying the interactions between bacteria and normal human tissue, seeing if the bacteria has any positive or negative effects on tumors.

“We are going to start to work on several types of skin cancer and as of right now we are getting the basics under our belt,” Ristove said.

If Burns is able to uncover anything in his research that would benefit cancer patients, it could be a leap toward perfecting cancer treatment or prevention.

Burns’ curiosity started in graduate school at the University of Minnesota. While there, he worked with a biologist studying HIV.

Burns said he began questioning the connection between the human body’s mutation-causing enzymes and cancer while in that lab.

“If there are enzymes that can mutate DNA in our own genome, a buildup of these mutations could predispose you to have cancer,” Burns said. “My hypothesis was maybe a portion of these mutations are caused by misregulating these DNA-damaging enzymes.”

Burns spent most of his Ph.D. time studying this interaction.

Feeling the urge to teach, Burns said he found himself spending half his time in the classroom and the other half in the lab. He later joined another professor at the University of Minnesota to study the impact cancer has on the microbiome and vice versa.

In his second year of postdoctoral work, Burns applied to several jobs before he ended up at Loyola.

“All of the places I was looking at did not have very strong programs in bioinformatics and few of them were doing much with the microbiome,” Burns said.

After two years of postdoctoral research, Burns landed a job at Loyola.

“I came to Loyola and I was blown away by the fact that you actually have a bioinformatics program for undergraduates,” he said. “I feel like I’m cheating because there’s already this infrastructure in place.”

Burns said he was also impressed with the research already being conducted on the microbiome at Loyola.

Burns said he’ll continue his research at Loyola trying to uncover the role of the microbiome on tumors and has recently been busy setting up his lab in the Quinlan Life Science Center at the Lake Shore Campus.  Burns said he plans to publish a paper soon on the interactions between cancer and the microbiome while also getting some publications for his 10 research assistants.

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