Probiotics and Lymphoma Prevention: Is There a Connection?

Lymphoma is a scary disease. As with almost any cancer, the causes are multiple and varied. Probiotics may have a role in lymphoma prevention – that of a protective role against it.

This article is a bit long and a bit personal. It is dedicated to a very special canine companion that I just lost to lymphoma. If you are a pet owner, and especially a dog owner, you understand the void. If you have lost any loved one to lymphoma, you understand the helplessness of a late diagnosis.

Although there are many possible causes of lymphomas such as viruses and mutations in genes (at least 26 genes for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in people), one of the causes may be a defect in a gene called the ATM gene combined with environmental factors.

This ATM gene is abundantly expressed is many body tissues and plays a very important role in the life cycle of cells and in repair to DNA double-strand breaks (i.e. damage to DNA, the basic structure containing all of the genetic information in a living organism). The inability to repair damaged DNA can result in the inability to shut down uncontrollable mutated cell growth resulting in cancer.

Defects in the ATM gene are known to be the cause of ataxia-telangiectasia (which is associated with a great increase in the risk for non-Hodgkin’s B-cell lymphoma) and also are associated with an increased risk of breast cancer. Defects may also be associated with other specific cancers.

Research on mice that are bred to have an ATM gene biallelic mutation (Atm -/-) show that they die primarily from lymphomas. However, research also shows that having one gene mutation or even double gene mutations does not mean that lymphoma is inevitable. Not all genetically-compromised mice die from lymphoma. Environmental factors have a role, too.

One of those environmental factors is the intestinal microbiota. And this is where probiotics may be able to help.

A 2013 study on these Atm-/- mice which focused on the effect of the gut microbiota showed that pathogens (undesirable microbes) work against lymphoma prevention. These pathogens caused genetic instability, an increase in the appearance of lymphomas in some mice, an increase in oxidative stress (a marker of low antioxidant ability) and systemic (throughout the body) DNA damage. One of the pathogens found in this study that is known to be associated with increased liver, colon and mammary cancers was from the Helicobacter genus.

Bacteria that were considered to provide more lymphoma prevention in the mice were Lactobacillus johnsonii and a Porphyromonas species that required more investigation. L. johnsonii treatment significantly reduced levels of pro-inflammatory chemical messengers and increased levels of anti-inflammatory chemical messengers.

This research and others have shown that inflammation-associated genetic alterations which originally occur in the intestines can also be found throughout the body. What happens in the intestines doesn’t always stay confined to the intestines!

Where Can You Find the Lymphoma Prevention Probiotic?

The L. johnsonii found and used in the above experiment was obtained from mouse feces so it is not a commercially-available option for people at this point. Additionally, probiotics for possible lymphoma prevention for human use are just starting to be explored and I imagine that it will take many years to pinpoint specific strains that will help with specific types of lymphomas in some people.

However, the takeaway point is that a look at this and other research tells us that many Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium species of bacteria such as the species found in products like these can strongly inhibit toxic genetic alterations in the gastrointestinal tract. And this in turn can help reduce the potential for DNA-based carcinogenic activity.

The End of the Story

This leads to the end of my story about my dog. In the mice studied, those with the more-controlled gut microbiota that succumbed to lymphoma died much later in life than the mice with the unrestricted gut microbiota.

Readers of my newsletter heard more details of what I did to help her. One thing worth noting is that my dog was on probiotics for years. Maybe the dosage wasn’t high enough to prevent the lymphoma. Maybe it wasn’t the most suitable formulation for her because it didn’t contain any Lactobacillus johnsonii. Maybe she ate something she wasn't supposed to eat or was exposed to the wildlife in our yard. Maybe she was genetically-susceptible and many other factors came into play that caused it.

I won’t ever know what caused her lymphoma. But maybe, just maybe, the probiotics she did take extended her time with us.


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