Diet is already a key part of managing diseases like diabetes and hypertension, but new research adds to a growing body of evidence that it could help cancer treatment too.
The study, published Aug 1, 2019, in the journal Nature, found restricting intake of an amino acid found in red meat and eggs significantly enhanced cancer treatment in mice, slowing tumour growth.
“These are very strong effects, and they are effects that are as strong as we would see with drugs that work,” says lead researcher Jason Locasale, an associate professor at Duke University’s School of Medicine in the United States.
“What this study is showing is that there are many situations where a drug by itself doesn’t work, but if you combine the drug with the diet, it works, or the radiation therapy doesn’t work well, but if you combine … with the diet, it works well,” he says.
The study focused on restricting intake of the amino acid methionine, which is key to a process called one-carbon metabolism that helps cancer cells grow.
Methionine restriction has already been associated with both anti-ageing and weight loss, but its importance to cancerous cells suggested it could also be a promising way to enhance cancer treatment.
The researchers first tested methionine restriction in healthy mice to confirm that it was having the desired effects on metabolism, and then moved to testing it in mice with colorectal cancer and soft tissue sarcomas.
They found that a low dose of chemotherapy, which on its own had no effect on colorectal cancer, led to “marked inhibition of tumour growth” when combined with methionine restriction.
Similarly, combining methionine restriction with radiation therapy in the case of the soft tissue sarcoma, reduced tumour growth.
“You’re starving the cancer cells of certain nutrients at a very basic level,” explains Assoc Prof Locasale.
He cautions that the results should not be extrapolated beyond the cancers tested so far and that the research was far from being tested in humans.
“This is certainly not a be-all, end-all to cancer, this is not some panacea,” he says.
“What it’s showing is that there are very interesting interactions between the food we eat, how it changes metabolism … and then, how those changes in cellular metabolism might have an effect on tumour growth.”
Independent experts also warned against reading too much into the study just yet.
“Before drawing any conclusions about the potential for dietary restriction as an approach to treating cancer, human studies are needed,” says Paul Pharoah, a professor of cancer epidemiology at the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom.
Assoc Prof Locasale and his colleagues extended the research by testing a methionine-restricted diet in six healthy humans and found that the effect on human metabolism appeared similar to that seen in mice.
That suggests that the diet could have a similar effect on certain tumours in humans, though Assoc Prof Locasale warns that it is far too early to draw any definitive conclusions.
And Tom Sanders, professor emeritus of nutrition and dietetics at King’s College London, UK, warns that “there is no evidence from this study to suggest following a vegan diet will help patients with cancer”.
Assoc Prof Locasale says he hopes to eventually test the research in humans with cancer, but notes that nutrition research often struggles for funding because it proposes treatments that are not easily monetisable.
Still, he says the work adds to a body of research that suggests diet may play an important role in cancer treatment.
Last year, a study showed that one type of chemotherapy drug was more effective in combination with a diet low in sugar, and high in protein and fat.
Other cancers appear to be better combated in combination with low-sugar diets.
“It’s just a really exciting area right now … where we’re seeing that diet has a huge effect on human health,” Assoc Prof Locasale says.
He hopes for a future where doctors will eventually be able to advise cancer patients to follow specific diets to assist their treatment.
“We’re not there yet, but the goal is to eventually get there.” – AFP Relaxnews