Fasting Might Boost Chemo’s Cancer-Busting Properties
Cancer treatment can be brutal for patients. Many of the tools we have—chemotherapy, radiation—are big, blunt weapons that deal punishing blows to healthy tissues along with cancerous ones. So the hunt has been on for more and more finely targeted therapies that will attack malignant cells yet minimize damage to patients’ bodies.
But a new study shows that we might be able to catch cancer cells off guard by using an ancient and body-wide tactic: fasting.
Fasting has long been practiced as part of various cultural traditions and has, more recently, gained favor in alternative and complementary medicine practices. But researchers are still figuring out whether nutritional deprivation can prevent or cure some diseases—and if so, how.
The new study found that in mice with cancer, fasting prior to chemotherapy often led to more tumor shrinkage than chemo alone. And in some cases, the combination apparently eliminated certain kinds of cancer. This fasting-chemo combo, the researchers suggest, “could extend the survival of advanced stage cancer patients by both retarding tumor progression and reducing side effects,” they noted in their study, published online Wednesday in Science Translational Medicine. It might be able to help early-stage patients, too, they say.
The new work builds on a 2008 mouse study that found fasting helped to protect healthy cells against chemotherapy’s toxic effects. That finding raised flags in the cancer field. “The concern was we were also protecting the cancer cells,” says Valter Longo, a professor of biology and gerontology at the University of Southern California Davis School of Gerontology and co-author of the new paper. So he and his colleagues embarked on five years of research to see whether that was the case, testing different fasting and chemotherapy regimens on a variety of cancers—glioma, melanoma, neuroblastoma, breast and ovarian—in mice. “We not only saw that the cancer was not protected but that it was sensitized” to the chemo, he says.