In 1971 President Nixon declared a “War on Cancer”, and signed the National Cancer Act on December 23, 1971. Since the early 70s the focus in cancer research has been on drug development, as well as early preventative screenings.
But a somewhat eyebrow raising trend in cancer treatment, is exploring ways to treat certain cancers by combining standard of care therapies and nutritional intervention. Based on decades of aging research, nutritional pathways in the body are used in a targeted way to impact the cancer patient microenvironment and oncogenes. Early human pilot studies are testing whether a few days of fasting with food, followed by refeeding can make chemotherapy more targeted and less toxic.
A recent study investigated whether the fasting mimicking diet (FMD) influenced the toxicity or effectiveness of chemotherapy in women with early-stage breast cancer. The fasting mimicking diet is a four-day meal replacement designed to provide vital nutrients. The FMD triggers the body to switch from an anabolic (growth state) to catabolic (repair state) metabolism, and for cells to enter into a protected state.
The authors of the randomized controlled study assigned 131 women with stage II/III breast cancer to receive either a low calorie fasting mimicking diet or their regular diet three days before and throughout neoadjuvant chemotherapy.
Chemotherapy administered to shrink a tumor prior to surgery is known as neoadjuvant chemotherapy.
Researchers observed that women on the FMD were more likely to experience a 90 to 100 percent tumor cell loss as compared to women on a regular diet. Patients on the FMD had less DNA damage in T-lymphocytes from chemotherapy than those on the regular diet.
A fasting-mimicking diet (FMD) combined with chemotherapy resulted in a 300-400% increase in the chance of killing 90-100% of cancer cells in women with breast cancer. DNA damage in T-cells was less in patients who received the FMD with chemotherapy.
Interestingly, a steroid Dexamethasone was not given to the FMD group. But there was no difference in toxicity between both groups.
Dexamethasone is an antiemetic drug, belonging to a class of drugs that is effective against vomiting and nausea. Antimetics are typically used to treat motion sickness and the side effects of general anaesthetics and chemotherapy directed against cancer. Administering steroids is a standard practice to help chemotherapy patients stave off naseau and handle chemo side effects.
According to the study: “This suggests that the FMD may obviate the need for dexamethasone in the prevention of the side effects of chemotherapy. Importantly, DNA damage in T-lymphocytes was less in patients who received the FMD in combination with chemotherapy compared to those receiving chemotherapy while on a regular diet, suggesting that the FMD protected these cells against the induction of DNA damage by chemotherapy.”
Steroids like dexamethasone are routinely given to cancer patients directly following chemotherapy, but also can trigger serious spikes in insulin.
Typical cancer dietary guidelines encourage chemo patients to consume a high protein diet to combat malnutrition or muscle wasting.
Only normal weight patients were involved in this study to guard against cachexia or muscle wasting. Fasting faces the challenge of going against nutritional guidelines in cancer therapy that are deeply entrenched. And patient compliance in this study was problematic, indicating that patients may need to be followed carefully or supported by a dietician in future larger mult-site studies still in the planning stage.
For now, this pilot trial suggests that (for certain cancers) new nutritional as well as steroid administration options, could be on the horizon.