Diet is now a key part of managing diseases such as diabetes and hypertension, but new research is adding to the growing body of evidence that it can also help treat cancer.
The study, published Thursday in the journal Nature, found that limiting the uptake of amino acids found in red meat and eggs significantly boosted cancer treatment in mice, slowing tumor growth.
"These are very powerful effects and they are effects that are as powerful as we could see with the drugs that work," says lead researcher Jason Locasale, an assistant professor at the Duke University School of Medicine.
"What this study shows is that there are many situations where a drug alone does not work, but if you combine the medicine with the diet, it works. Or radiation therapy does not work well, but if you combine … with the diet. , it works fine, "he told AFP.
The study focuses on limiting the uptake of the amino acid methionine, which is key to a process called single-carbon metabolism that helps cancer cells grow.
Methionine restriction is already linked to both anti-aging and weight loss, but its relevance to cancer cells suggests that it may also be a promising way to boost cancer treatment.
First, the researchers tested methionine restriction in healthy mice to confirm that it had the desired effects on metabolism, and then switched to testing mice with colorectal cancer and soft tissue tumors known as sarcomas.
They found that low-dose chemotherapy, which in itself had no effect on colorectal cancer, resulted in a "marked inhibition of tumor growth" when combined with methionine restriction.
Similarly, the combination of methionine restriction with radiation therapy in the case of soft tissue sarcoma reduces tumor growth.
"You are starving cancer cells of certain nutrients at a very basic level," Locasale explained.
He warned that the results should not be extrapolated beyond the cancers tested so far and that the tests have not been tested in humans.
"It's certainly not all-inclusive, the ultimate in cancer. It's not a panacea," he said.
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Independent experts also warn not to read too much into the study.
"Before making any conclusions about the potential for dietary restriction as an approach to treating cancer, human research is needed," says Paul Farroa, professor of cancer epidemiology at Cambridge University.
Locasale and his colleagues expanded the study by testing a methionine-restricted diet in six healthy people and found that the effect on human metabolism appeared to be similar to that seen in mice.
This suggests that diet may have a similar effect on certain tumors in humans, although Locasale warns that it is too early to reach definitive conclusions.
And Tom Sanders, professor of nutrition and dietetics at King's College London, warned that "there is no evidence from this study to suggest that adhering to a vegan diet will help cancer patients."
Lokasale said he hoped to eventually try cancer research, but noted that nutrition studies often struggle for funding because they offer treatment that is clearly not profitable.
Still, he said the work adds to a number of studies suggesting that diet may play an important role in cancer treatment.
Last year's study showed that a type of chemotherapy drug was more effective in combination with a low-sugar, high-protein and high-fat diet. Other cancers seem to fight better in combination with low sugar diets only.
"Studies like this can lead to studies in humans," said Justin Stebing, professor of cancer medicine and cancer at Imperial College London.
"How dietary interventions affect cancer … will probably be really important in the coming years."
Locasale agreed, calling the field "a really exciting area at the moment … where we see that diet has a huge effect on human health."
He hopes for a future where doctors will eventually be able to advise cancer patients to adhere to specific diets to aid their treatment.
"We're not there yet, but the goal is to get there eventually."