In research conducted by a team of scientists based in the U.S. and Italy, mice that had been injected with cancer cells were starved for two days prior to being administered a high dose of chemotherapy. The starved mice lived longer after the treatment, gained back the weight they'd lost during their pre-treatment "fast," and suffered none of the side effects that debilitated their counterparts in the control group. The brief period of starvation shielded the mice's healthy cells from the toxic effects of chemotherapy, thereby eliminating a significant drawback to this type of cancer treatment.
Intriguingly, this advance in cancer care originated not in the field of oncology but in gerontology. Study co-author Valter D. Longo of the University of Southern California explained that in his work on aging, he had been researching how to protect cells when he "realized that the same genes that were controlling aging were also the ones that are sort of stuck in ‘on' mode in the majority of cancers."
Healthy cells faced with a stressor like starvation go into a protective mode, while cancer cells - lacking such a mode - continue reproducing and are left vulnerable to chemotherapy.
Noting that clinical trials are planned, Longo told Miller-McCune.com, "We hope to know if 48 hours' starvation can protect humans against chemo within the next 12 months." Such extreme measures may not always be needed, however - good news for those patients who may have already experienced partial or even severe weight loss prior to their treatment.
Cautioning that animal experiments and clinical trials must still be conducted, Longo explained that a different therapy regimen based on the starvation principle may be developed, consisting of a replacement diet and drug therapy that would replace the fasting but mimic the protective response the fasting has been shown to trigger.
Click here to watch Professor Longo discuss the research.