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Scrutiny
  
No more the good guy
E. coli is now declared a human hazard as scientists are observing a discomfiting link to bowel & colon cancer. The world must act.
30/09/2012

Beware! E. coli is a dire human threat now. Research done by medical scientists in Britain has revealed that the primary cause of one of the most common cancers is the E. coli virus.

As a matter of fact, Escherichia coli (commonly known as E. coli) happens to be the most studied organism in the world. It is a very complex group of gut bacteria that’s found in all warm-blooded animals including humans. The general theory and empirical evidence till date postulated that the bacterium was mostly harmless. This bacterium has even been deemed in some past studies as being essential for the survival of human beings and cattle as it helps to digest food. But recently, medical tests have revealed that E. coli might be the main cause of bowel/colorectal cancer (a disease which claims 600,000 plus lives a year, as per WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer). Tests have indicated that E. coli bacteria are more prevalent among bowel cancer patients than otherwise. A germ being the root cause of cancer may seem uncommon. However, it is not totally out-of-place, as it has been proved beyond doubt that there are living viruses that cause cervical cancer and bacteria that lead to stomach cancer.

E. coli reportedly has genes that are poisonous and lead to DNA damage that is common in cancer. However, it is not a sureshot cause of food poisoning and can remain dormant in the bowels with no ill effects. But the recurrence is high in patients. This is reflected in a study published in Journal Science. A sample size of 21 taken from bowel cancer patients revealed that two thirds of them were carriers of this bug; whereas among healthy individuals, that rate is just one-fifth. Experiments on these lines are carried out extensively on mice. They also show that bowel cancers are much more frequent when the bacteria with a particularly DNA damaging pks gene is present in the body.

It is also suspected by researchers that E. coli is a carrier of colon cancer, and its involvement is deeper than previously thought. Professor Jonathan Rhodes of Liverpool University is studying this with keen interest, and opines from his own analysis, “The bottomline message is that there seems to be a strong association between a type of E. coli and the development of colon cancer. And given that this type of E. coli is specifically able to damage DNA and inflict the sort of damage you get in a cancer, it is very likely that it has a causative role, at least in some patients.”

The mystery, however, persists with respect to the exact causes of an E. coli infection in human beings. Researchers at the Liverpool University are in a joint mission with the University of North Carolina to decipher this puzzle. However there doesn’t seem to be any clear cut trend line; not only on the causes of the infection but also on why certain E. coli bacteria are carcinogenic while the others aren’t.

Presumably, even its harmless strain that affects the gut can cause cancer if it is inflamed. Professor Christian Jobin of the University of North Carolina intoned his views “They’re not exactly your flagship disease-causing bacteria. They wear a different mask. They wear the bad-guy mask now.” This is because people with swollen bowels are at much greater risk to develop cancer as compared to people having healthy stomachs. It was previously believed that molecules produced by immune cells in the gut cause damage to the DNA, but now scientists are quite convinced that the bacteria is the real cause.

And since the ill effects of this bacteria and are still under study, a vaccine doesn’t exist for it yet. However, according to Professor Rhodes, the discovery is possible sooner than we think. It is next in line to the HPV vaccines that have been recently developed to combat the cervical cancer causing virus.

Though it has not yet announced as an epidemic. it’s high time the medical community responds to the wake up call. Without the slightest iota of doubt, E. coli is a human threat! There have already been some tragic casualties – exemplar being the deaths of 18 people in Walkerton. Another E. coli strain has had negative effects on the health front for thousands in Germany, and it has claimed 16 lives already. Developed nations like US, UK, France and Germany have taken it up on priority, but the rest are still on the sidelines. Before many lives are lost, the UN should at least take the initiative to declare it as a threat and incite a call to action.

By:- Sayan Ghosh
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