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Learning How to Starve a Tumor

November 17, 2021 – The old advice to “feed a cold, starve a fever” has a limited evidence base, but new research shows how feeding a tumor with fat and sugar could fuel its growth.

Pancreatic tumors in mice grow more slowly when animals eat a low-calorie diet, the findings suggest. The results, published in NatureThis doesn’t mean that everyone with cancer should follow a special diet, especially since people aren’t mice. But more research in this area could identify combinations of specific diets and drug therapies that improve cancer treatments.

Scientists have long known that cancer cells are voracious and consume amounts of glucose as they grow. The question is whether depriving them of glucose would slow down this growth without harming the rest of the body. To get an answer, the researchers worked with mice with pancreatic tumors. They gave a low-calorie diet to one group, a normal diet to one group, and a high protein, fat and carbohydrate ketogenic diet to a third group.

Only tumors in animals on a low-calorie diet showed slower growth, implying that the tumors needed more than glucose to keep growing. Glucose levels were lower with calorie restriction and the keto diet, but fat was also lower with calorie restriction.

All cells, including cancer cells, use lipids to build their protective outer membranes. The increased lipid levels on the keto diet may have given tumors all the lipids they need to build new cell membranes.

The results suggest that the key to slowing the cancer in these mice was to deprive the tumors of glucose and lipids, as only the low-calorie diet did. Healthy body tissue still needs these nutrients, one of the reasons cancer patients should not change their diet without clinical guidance. But the results suggest that using diet or drugs to restrict the intake of certain fats or their use by cells may be a way to starve a tumor without starving the person.

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