Immuno-oncology has rapidly grown in the last thirty years, and immunotherapeutic agents are now approved to treat many disparate cancers. Immune checkpoint inhibitors (ICIs) are employed to augment cytotoxic anti-cancer activity by inhibiting negative regulatory elements of the immune system. Modulating the immune system to target neoplasms has improved survivability of numerous cancers in many individuals, but forecasting outcomes post therapy is difficult due to insufficient predictive biomarkers. Recently, the tumor and gastrointestinal microbiome and immune milieu have been investigated as predictors and influencers of cancer immune therapy. In this review, we discuss: (1) ways to measure the microbiome including relevant bioinformatic analyses, (2) recent developments in animal studies and human clinical trials utilizing gut microbial composition and function as biomarkers of cancer immune therapy response and toxicity, and (3) using prebiotics, probiotics, postbiotics, antibiotics, and fecal microbiota transplant (FMT) to modulate immune therapy. We discuss the respective benefits of 16S ribosomal RNA (rRNA) gene and shotgun metagenomic sequencing including important considerations in obtaining samples and in designing and interpreting human and animal microbiome studies. We then focus on studies discussing the differences in response to ICIs in relation to the microbiome and inflammatory mediators. ICIs cause colitis in up to 25% of individuals, and colitis is often refractory to common immunosuppressive medications. Researchers have measured microbiota composition prior to ICI therapy and correlated baseline microbiota composition with efficacy and colitis. Certain bacterial taxa that appear to enhance therapeutic benefit are also implicated in increased susceptibility to colitis, alluding to a delicate balance between pro-inflammatory tumor killing and anti-inflammatory protection from colitis. Pre-clinical and clinical models have trialed probiotic administration, e.g. Bifidobacterium spp. or FMT, to treat colitis when immune suppressive agents fail. We are excited about the future of modulating the microbiome to predict and influence cancer outcomes. Furthermore, novel therapies employed for other illnesses including bacteriophage and genetically-engineered microbes can be adapted in the future to promote increased advancements in cancer treatment and side effect management.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)567-585
Number of pages19
JournalCritical Reviews in Clinical Laboratory Sciences
Issue number8
StatePublished - Nov 17 2019


  • Microbiome
  • cancer immune therapy
  • immune checkpoint inhibitors
  • next-generation sequencing


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