NYU Dentistry Awarded NIH Grant to Alter Gut Microbiome to Improve Pancreatic Cancer Treatment


Drs. Deepak Saxena and Xin Li have received a new Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) program grant from the National Cancer Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health. The funding will support their work to create and test probiotics that alter the gut microbiome to see if they can enhance the efficacy of immunotherapy in treating pancreatic cancer.

The $400,000, one-year grant (R41CA250892) is the second STTR grant to NYU Dentistry-based startup company Periomics Care, founded by Drs. Saxena and Li.

Pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDA) is the most common form of pancreatic cancer and has a dismal five-year survival rate of 7%. Despite the recent success of checkpoint inhibitors—a type of immunotherapy—in treating melanoma and lung cancer, patients with PDA have not had the same clinical benefit.

In a 2018 study in the journal Cancer Discovery and a 2019 study in Nature, a research team including Drs. Saxena and Li reported that the makeup of bacteria and fungi in the gut, or microbiome, determines the speed of PDA tumor growth, and that using antibiotics could slow cancer growth and increase the efficacy of immunotherapy.

“We found that PDA is associated with a distinct, stage-specific gut and pancreatic microbiome, and it drives disease progression by inducing intratumoral immune suppression,” said Saxena, professor of molecular pathobiology at NYU Dentistry and director of Periomics Care.

Using their new STTR grant, the researchers will develop and test a probiotic to restore the microbiome. Through their previous work on the microbiome and PDA, they have created a cocktail of eight strains of bacteria and fungi which help to maintain gut homeostasis. The formulation will be tested on animal models of PDA to determine if probiotics and/or antibiotics can make immunotherapy more effective.

“Findings from this first phase will enable us to design clinical trials with other partners to test microbiome-directed interventions to improve checkpoint-based immunotherapy in PDA,” said Li, associate professor of molecular pathobiology at NYU Dentistry and co-founder of Periomics Care. “We believe that modulating the gut microbiome will have dramatic implications for using immunotherapies for pancreatic cancer treatment.”