According to an animal study from the University of Southern California, a few days of fasting might help protect patients from some of the unpleasant and dangerous side-effects of cancer chemotherapy.
In the study, mice given a high dose of chemotherapy after fasting thrived while half of a group of well-fed mice died. The findings were reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The researchers first tested yeast cells, then human cells in lab dishes. They found healthy cells starved of nutrients survived the ravages of chemotherapy.
Animals fed a low-calorie diet live longer, in part because their cells can resist stress better. The researchers also noticed that starved cells go into a hibernation mode, while cancer cells form tumours because they lack an "off" position, growing uncontrollably.
One reason chemotherapy causes side-effects is that it affects all active and growing cells -- tumours, but also hair follicles, the lining of the intestines and other cells.
In the study, the researchers gave an unusually high dose chemotherapy to mice that had been starved for 48 hours. In humans, one-third of this concentration of drug is considered to be a high dose and therefore in the maximum allowable.
The high dose killed 43 percent of the mice that were fed normally but just one starved mouse. The starved mice regained their lost weight within four days.
An even higher dose killed all of the well-fed mice from a different genetic strain but none of the starved mice, and again the mice that fasted regained their weight.
While some cancer experts said a few days of fasting would not harm most cancer, the researchers stressed that people should not try this on their own.
These findings might lead to a way to use chemotherapy to more effectively kill tumours while sparing healthy cells.
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