For quite a while, there’s been hope that starving cancer cells of sugar fights malignancies of all kinds.
This is because many cancer cells feed on sugar. The keto diet, which limits sugary foods and lowers blood sugar, is a promising therapy for slowing down cancer. However, this strategy doesn’t always work. Let’s take a closer look at the reason why as well as what the latest research shows you can do about it.
Cancer cells are devious, clever survivors.
They can often withstand situations in the body – like an area in the body low in oxygen – that would kill or seriously harm normal cells. Instead, cancer thrives in those conditions.
And although the body possesses a wide range of immune cells designed to kill off cancer cells, cancerous growths biochemically jam the signals that immune cells use to recognize malignancies. When this happens, immune cells leave tumors alone and allow them to keep growing.
But there’s good news. The question of what nutrients cancer needs to grow and survive is revealing cancer’s kryptonite — the weakness that can keep cancer in check or even wipe it out.
Starving cancer cells
If cancer cells feed on sugar, then eliminating sugar from your diet should shrink tumors and cause cancer to die. In some cases, it does. In others, not so much. The latest research shows this is because cancer cells switch off their need for sugar as a fuel source and use an amino acid called glutamine as fuel instead.
Recently, researchers began targeting both fuel sources with great results.
In a laboratory study led by researchers at Boston College, this dual strategy helped eliminate cells linked to an aggressive and often fatal type of brain cancer called glioblastoma – a rapidly growing brain cancer. When glioblastoma patients receive surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, they survive only 16 months, on average. And the side effects of these treatments are scary: They include memory loss, weakness, vomiting, hair loss and fever.
In the Boston College study, the researchers used a ketogenic diet combined with an antibiotic developed in the 1950s called 6-diazo-5-oxo-L-norleucine (DON) to treat laboratory animals with glioblastoma.
They chose glioblastoma cells specifically because they possess malfunctioning mitochondria – the organelles in cells that fuel cellular activity. To make energy, the abnormal mitochondria in these cancer cells use a fermentation process that often makes energy out of either glucose or glutamine. Thus, when starved for sugar, they can survive on glutamine.
While the DON antibiotic renders the mitochondria in the cancer cells unable to use glutamine, at the same time the keto diet restricts carbohydrates and cuts off mitochondria from glucose. The result: Cancer cells die.
In addition, say the scientists, the keto diet helps DON travel into the brain across the blood-brain barrier, a challenge that might otherwise keep most DON out of brain tissue where glioblastoma cells grow.1
“We were surprised that the restricted ketogenic diet facilitated delivery of DON through the blood-brain barrier,” says researcher Thomas N. Seyfried, who teaches biology at Boston College. “It appears from this study and our previous study with another drug, that the restricted ketogenic diet can be considered a novel drug delivery system for the brain. There is no drug known that can do this.”
It’s an exciting finding, and certainly not the first time an alternative cancer treatment has outperformed a cancer drug. But keep in mind – so far this technique is only proven in lab animals.
Fruit and spice extracts
stop cancer cells from devouring glutamine
Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin have discovered natural chemicals found in fruits and vegetables may also prevent cancer cells from using glutamine.
The researchers started their study after other investigations indicated that compounds in apple peels, green tea and turmeric showed promise in the fight against cancer. The natural chemicals in these foods, say the scientists, have been demonstrated to limit inflammation, which is a major risk factor for cancer. Folks who develop chronic inflammation from autoimmune conditions, chronic infections or obesity suffer an increased chance of cancer after the inflammation damages normal cells.
After running tests on more than 140 natural compounds, the Texas scientists decided to analyze the anti-cancer benefits of ursolic acid, found in rosemary and apple peels; resveratrol, a substance in berries and red grapes; and curcumin, the antioxidant contained in turmeric.
Laboratory results: Works against
prostate cancer cells
In lab tests on prostate cancer cells, they discovered that these three phytochemicals in combination keep cancer cells from consuming glutamine.2
“These nutrients have potential anti-cancer properties and are readily available,” says researcher Stefano Tiziani. “We only need to increase concentration beyond levels found in a healthy diet for an effect on prostate cancer cells.”
But remember what I said about cancer cells being tricky and devious?
Some cancers STILL survive
Even though research suggests that combining a keto diet with natural substances that restrict cancer’s access to glutamine can kill cancer, researchers in Asia warn that some types of cancer may, in fact, be able to survive this strategy.
In their tests, they found that some cancerous growths can use ketone bodies – compounds that are produced when the fats included in the keto diet are processed for energy – to fuel their activity. They say that testing cancer cells for the enzymes necessary for employing the ketone bodies can show if tumors can survive the keto diet while being cut off from glucose and glutamine.3
So, no matter what strategy is used for fighting cancer, it’s a complicated business. Seems like every time we close in on what seems to be a solution, more questions are raised about how cancer can evade treatments.
But I do believe that this new research, especially the studies that help us better understand how natural, relatively non-toxic treatments work, is bringing us closer to more cancer fighting breakthroughs. We just have to keep in mind that different types of cancer cells have a large bag of tricks they use to defend themselves. And we have to continually learn how to outsmart them.