From: Reuters
Published April 1, 2008 05:09 PM

Fasting found to reduce chemo side-effects

By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Editor

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A few days of fasting might help protect patients from some of the unpleasant and dangerous side-effects of cancer chemotherapy, researchers reported on Tuesday.

They said mice given a high dose of chemotherapy after fasting thrived while half of a group of well-fed mice died, they reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers stressed that people should not try this on their own yet but said the findings might lead to a way to use chemotherapy to more effectively kill tumors while sparing healthy cells.


"The clinicians tell me that if it works everybody will do it," said Valter Longo of the University of Southern California, who led the study.

People say "they are miserable after they get the chemo and they lose weight because they don't want to eat after they get the chemo."

His lab is preparing to test the idea in humans.

Longo and colleagues first tested yeast cells, then human cells in lab dishes. They found healthy cells starved of nutrients survived the ravages of chemotherapy -- but not cancer cells.

"In theory, it opens up new treatment approaches that will allow higher doses of chemotherapy. It's a direction that's worth pursuing in clinical trials in humans," cancer researcher Pinchas Cohen of the University of California, Los Angeles, who was not involved in the study, said in a statement.


Longo and colleagues said animals fed a low-calorie diet live longer, in part because their cells can resist stress better. They also noticed that starved cells go into a kind of hibernation mode, while cancer cells form tumors because they lack an "off" position, growing uncontrollably.

Longo wondered if the starvation response might be a way to differentiate healthy cells from cancer cells. One reason chemotherapy causes side-effects is that it affects all active and growing cells -- tumors, but also hair follicles, the lining of the intestines and other cells.

"We administered an unusually high dose of etoposide (80 mg/kg) to ... mice that had been starved for 48 hours. In humans, one-third of this concentration of etoposide is considered to be a high dose and therefore in the maximum allowable range," they wrote.

The high dose killed 43 percent of the mice that were fed normally but just one starved mouse. The starved mice regained their lost weight within four days.

"They can start eating and being well right away," Longon said in a telephone interview.

They found the effect with four different chemotherapy drugs, he said.

An even higher dose killed all of the well-fed mice from a different genetic strain but none of the starved mice, and again the mice that fasted regained their weight.

Other cancer experts said a few days of fasting would not harm most cancer patients.

"This could have applicability in maybe a majority of patients," said Dr. David Quinn of the University of Southern California.

"We have passed the stage where patients arrive at the clinic in an emaciated state. Not eating for two days is not the end of the world," agreed Felipe Sierra, director of the Biology of Aging Program at the National Institute on Aging.

(Reporting by Maggie Fox; Editing by Will Dunham and Bill Trott)

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