Fasting may boost cancer-fighting immune function

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A new study from researchers at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK) suggests that periods of fasting can enhance the ability of natural killer cells, a type of immune cell, to fight cancer.

This study, led by Dr. Rebecca Delconte and published on June 14 in the journal Immunity, sheds light on how fasting reprograms these cells to survive in the challenging environment around tumors and improve their cancer-fighting abilities.

Natural killer (NK) cells are a type of white blood cell that can destroy cancer cells and cells infected by viruses without needing prior exposure. The more NK cells present in a tumor, the better the prognosis for the patient.

In the study, mice with cancer were fasted for 24 hours twice a week, with normal eating in between. This regimen prevented significant weight loss but had a profound impact on their NK cells. During fasting, glucose levels dropped, and levels of free fatty acids increased.

These fatty acids, released by fat cells, serve as an alternative energy source when glucose is scarce. The NK cells adapted to using these fatty acids for energy, enhancing their ability to function in the lipid-rich tumor environment.

Fasting also caused a redistribution of NK cells in the body. Many NK cells moved to the bone marrow, where they encountered high levels of Interleukin-12, a key signaling protein.

This exposure primed them to produce more Interferon-gamma, a cytokine important for anti-tumor responses. Additionally, NK cells in the spleen became better at using lipids as fuel.

These changes together enabled NK cells to produce more cytokines within tumors and survive better in the tumor environment, enhancing their anti-cancer properties.

The study also found that fasting caused a reduction of freely circulating NK cells in the blood of both mice and cancer patients. This suggests that similar mechanisms might be at play in humans.

This research opens several potential avenues for improving cancer treatments. Clinical trials are already exploring the safety and effectiveness of fasting combined with standard treatments.

Another possibility is developing drugs that mimic the effects of fasting without requiring patients to fast. Additionally, NK cells could be put into a fasted state outside the body and then administered to patients to enhance treatment effects.

However, more clinical data is needed to understand the effects of fasting on cancer patients fully. Dr. Neil Iyengar, an MSK breast medical oncologist who was not involved in the study, emphasizes the importance of patients consulting with their doctors before trying fasting, as different types of fasting might have varying effects.

This study provides a promising insight into how dietary interventions like fasting could potentially boost the immune system’s ability to fight cancer, offering a new strategy to improve cancer treatments.

If you care about cancer, please read studies about common drugs for inflammation may help kill cancer, and statin drugs can starve cancer cells to death.

For more information about cancer, please see recent studies about these two things are key to surviving cancer and results showing common Indian fruit may slow down cancer growth.

The findings can be found in Immunity.

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