Cancers of the gastrointestinal tract account for 25 % of all cancers and for 9 % of all causes of cancer death in the world, so gastrointestinal cancers represent a major health problem. In the past decades, an emerging role has been attributed to the interactions between the gastrointestinal content and the onset of neoplasia.
Thus, exogenous microbial administration of peculiar bacterial strains (probiotics) has been suggested as having a profound influence on multiple processes associated with a change in cancer risk. Probiotics are mono or mixed cultures of live microorganisms that might beneficially affect the host by improving the characteristics of indigenous microflora. Although the effects of probiotic administration has been intensively investigated in vitro, in animal models, in healthy volunteers, and in some human gastrointestinal diseases, very little is still known about the possible cross-interactions among probiotic administration, changes of intestinal flora, and the neoplastic transformation of gastrointestinal mucosa.
Theoretically, probiotics are able to reduce cancer risk by a number of mechanisms: (a) binding and degradation of potential carcinogens; (b) quantitative, qualitative and metabolic alterations of the intestinal microflora; (c) production of anti-tumorigenic or anti-mutagenic compounds; (d) competitive action towards pathogenic bacteria; (e) enhancement of the host's immune response; (f) direct effects on cell proliferation.
This review will attempt to highlight the literature on the most widely recognized effects of probiotics against neoplastic transformation of gastrointestinal mucosa and in particular on their effects on cell proliferation.