Antibiotics need further study in cancer treatments

  • Recent medical studies have shown cancer stem cells seem to be sensitive to several common antibiotics.

    Recent medical studies have shown cancer stem cells seem to be sensitive to several common antibiotics. Stock Photo

Updated 4/14/2021 10:17 PM

You might be surprised to learn that a cancerous tumor is not a single set of cells and some of these tumor cells are more prone to spread to different parts of the body. They are the reason for cancer metastasizing. That subset of tumor cells are known as cancer stem cells and they also are more resistant to anti-cancer medications and radiation therapy.

Recent medical studies have shown cancer stem cells seem to be sensitive to common medications and some dietary supplements. With these therapies, their ability to metastasize may be reduced by as much as 90%. As a result, some researchers suggest cancer therapy should also include therapies that target cancer stem cells.


Cancer stem cells, or CSCs, are a small subpopulation of cells within tumors with capabilities of self-renewal, differentiation and tumorigenicity. The clinical relevance of CSCs demonstrates that CSCs quickly develop resistant to chemotherapy and radiation treatment. CSCs were first described by John Dick in 1994. He discovered that CSCs are slower growing than other tumor cells. Traditional anti-cancer therapies focus on fast-growing cells so it is not unusual for CSCs to "escape" and travel to other parts of the body.

Dick stated that "to get rid of the cancer, you have to find ways of eliminating the stem cells." CSCs may be susceptible to common antibiotics.

All cells contain a unique organelles called mitochondria. It is in the mitochondria that much of the energy used in the cell is made. Both the cell and its mitochondria independently make needed proteins through a protein-based "machine" termed a ribosome. Ribosomes of the cell and the mitochondria are quite different. Indeed, mitochondrial ribosomes are more related to bacterial ribosomes than cellular ribosomes. Some antibiotics kill bacteria by inactivating their ribosomes and there is some research indicating these antibiotics, by the same mechanism, affect the mitochondrial ribosomes of CSCs.

One study published in the medical journal Aging demonstrated that two antibiotics and vitamin C reduced propagation of CSCs by 90%. This was a study done in test tube (in vitro) but the results are compelling. The two antibiotics, doxycycline and azithromycin, bind to CSCs ribosomes at different sites. Vitamin C enhances the effects of the antibiotics. The end result dramatically reduces the metabolic activity of the CSCs, reducing their ability to metastasize.

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An additional benefit of azithromycin is that, by a different mechanism, it may reduce the ability of CSCs to survive. Another, less well-known antibiotic, salinomycin (Chemistry, 2020), induces CSCs death by forcing the cells to accumulate toxic levels of iron.

The clinical trials for antibiotics and CSCs is limited but positive. However, given the low toxicity associated with these antibiotics and the potential gain for cancer patients, antibiotic therapy should be considered in combination with chemotherapy, radiation therapy and even surgery. In the fight against cancer, no stone should be left unturned.

• Dr. Patrick Massey is president of ALT-MED Medical and Physical Therapy, 1544 Nerge Road, Elk Grove Village.

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