A diet so “shocking” that it resets the immune system of cancer patients and strengthens therapy. It is now more and more evident: very restrictive diets, as well as fasting, are good weapons against cancer. But how tolerable are they by those in treatment, on the days – not always easy – in which chemotherapy or immunotherapy is administered?
This is the question answered by the researchers of the National Cancer Institute (Int) and the FIRC Foundation Institute of Molecular Oncology (Ifom) in Milan, who conducted a study, funded by the Airc Foundation, on 101 patients being treated against the cancer. The diet tested, hypoglycemic, provided for a very severe caloric restriction of five days, to be taken cyclically every three to four weeks during chemotherapy or immunotherapy under medical supervision.
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With around 400-600 calories on the first day and less than 400 the next, it consisted mainly of vegetables, oil, tea, fruit, nuts and just once whole-grain bread.
“It was well tolerated,” he says Filippo de Braud, director of the Department of Oncology and Hematology at Int and lead author of the study, published in the journal Cancer Discovery. “The biggest doubt was the organic wasting, but only four people went from normal weight to underweight, and not in a serious way. 99% of patients, on the other hand, managed to do at least one cycle; of these, the 76% made at least three “.
Statistically, there are also few side effects. “About four patients experienced asthenia, ie fatigue, while five suffered an episode of hypoglycemia. Then other small adverse reactions such as nausea or feeling of confusion.” On the other hand, the impact of diet on mental well-being has not been assessed, although, the expert confirms, “it is an interesting aspect that will need to be investigated. For now, the perception is that patients are motivated to be involved in the first place. person in the implementation of a therapeutic strategy “.
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Tolerability, therefore, but also effective in fighting the disease. As? The assumption of the study is that cancer cells take advantage of the high blood sugar level to proliferate. Therefore, reducing glucose as much as possible on the days of therapy is as if the enemy were hit from two fronts: with diet and with drugs. “From this, but already from other studies, we know that fasting or very restrictive diets are able to reduce not only the concentration of glucose in the blood, but also that of the growth factors that stimulate the multiplication of cancer cells, such as insulin and insulin-like growth factor, “explains de Braud. At the same time, metabolic shock also affects the immune system, where it reduces the number and activity of bad cells, which inhibit the immune response, and increases the amount of good ones, such as cytotoxic T lymphocytes and so-called Natural cells. Killer, potentially able to recognize and kill cancer cells. “It’s like it resets the immune system and makes it more effective,” comments the expert.
It is not yet known whether the merits derive only from the calorie restriction or also from the substances contained in food, therefore above all from the unsaturated fats of olive oil and dried fruit and from the nutrients of vegetables. So de Braud and colleagues have started a study to understand if there are molecules more powerful than others in increasing the anti-neoplastic effect of fasting and in what quantities to administer them to patients.
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Similarly, it is not yet known on which tumors the diet-therapy approach is most effective. “Our study mainly included patients with breast, colon and lung cancers, but as they volunteered, we were unable to sample accurately,” concludes de Braud. “For now, we have focused on triple negative breast cancer, the most difficult to treat because it is not very sensitive to immunotherapy. In fact we are already experimenting the effect of diet therapy on 90 women in the Breakfast study, while in another called Digest. we are studying the effect of caloric restriction without chemotherapy on melanoma and operable breast cancers. But other research on lung cancers in combination with immunotherapy is also underway. “