Dr Aoife Ryan says fish oil could hold the key
Researchers from University College Cork (UCC) are hoping to increase cancer survival rates with a new approach to food.
They are examining the development of protein gels, dietary drinks and appetite-increasing supplements to help cancer patients who experience involuntary weight loss.
Dr Aoife Ryan says up to 80% of cancer patients unintentionally lose weight, which can have a devastating impact on their quality of life.
She says the seriousness of this can be seen by the fact that one in five cancer deaths are caused from wasting, not from cancer.
The wastage affects not just muscles involved in movement, but also those involved in breathing and in the heart.
Dr Ryan says: "It seems it is almost the norm to lose weight once you develop cancer. Ten years ago it was thought patients were losing fat.
"Now we can use their CT scans to measure exactly what patients are losing and we are gaining a huge understanding that that weight loss is actually muscle. It is rapid loss of muscle."
Cancer patients often develop severe muscle wasting called ‘sarcopenia’, most commonly seen in elderly people.
In cancer, it develops much more rapidly and at much younger ages.
Dr Ryan says: "I have seen cancer patients with a normal muscle mass at diagnosis and two months later they are sarcopenic."
Her team at UCC have performed a detailed study of the nutritional status and quality of life in Irish cancer patients.
Dr Ryan has spent over 12 years studying EPA, a fish oil which is found in salmon, mackerel and herring. But she says most people eat very little of it.
UCC has joined forces with food scientists to put a high dose of fish oil into a nutritional drink.
Dr Ryan says the results have been encouraging: "Several clinical trials have shown that, if we give patients with cancer calories, protein and a very high dose of a fish oil, that it will dampen down inflammation and they will lose less muscle.
"Keeping patients active through exercise is also hugely important".
The study has been on-going since 2011, and 1,020 patients from Cork University Hospital and the Mercy University Hospital have been recruited to date.
"We have looked at over 1,000 patients having chemotherapy here in Cork and only 4% of them look underweight.
"We rarely see obviously wasted cancer patients anymore, nowadays they look normal or overweight but, underneath that fat, there is very little muscle.
"Over 40% have sarcopenia and these patients live about half as long as people who maintain their muscle."
"They are losing weight because cancer causes huge amounts of inflammation in their bodies. So can we dampen down inflammation which would cause them to stop losing weight? If they are weight stable they will live longer."
Meanwhile, food scientists at UCC are also developing high protein gels for cancer patients.
This is based on the fact that patients undergoing chemotherapy often suffer from metallic tastes in their mouths, so they have taste challenges as well as appetite challenges.
The gels would be tasteless and could be added into food without affecting texture.