New therapy could combat the weight loss and muscle wasting experienced by cancer patients

Media release
26 August 2010
Deakin University medical researchers are working on a treatment for cancer cachexia, the debilitating weight loss and muscle wasting condition that affects patients with cancer.

Deakin University medical researchers are working on a treatment for cancer cachexia, the debilitating weight loss and muscle wasting condition that affects patients with cancer.

Cancer cachexia has a major impact on quality of life for cancer patients. It can also inhibit the effectiveness of cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy. There is currently no effective treatment.

Deakin Medical School researchers are testing a combination of two readily available therapies (an omega 3 fatty acid and an anti-gout medication) they believe could delay the onset of cancer cachexia and ultimately improve quality of life for cancer patients.

"Cancer cachexia is a serious, debilitating and often unrecognised health issue," explained research team leader, Dr Paul Lewandowski.

"Around half of all patients with cancer develop cachexia. One in three of us will develop cancer, so one in six Australians will suffer from the condition. Approximately 20 per cent of cancer deaths are thought to be due to cachexia and not the cancer itself.

"Cachexia commonly affects older patients, whose quality of life is dramatically reduced. They don't feel like eating and can't exercise because they are constantly tired and lethargic.

"Many of us have watched a loved one waste away because of cancer. Our hope is that the treatment we are working on will delay the onset of cachexia or slow down its progression. This could buy time for other cancer therapies to have an effect."

The cause and development of cancer cachexia is not fully understood, although an imbalance of chemicals known as free radicals is thought to play a major role. Restoring the balance of free radicals is the focus of the Deakin study which is expected to take three years to complete.

"Free radicals occur naturally in the body and are not harmful in low levels. Under normal circumstances free radicals are kept under control by antioxidants," explained Ms Vanessa Vaughan, a PhD student working on the project.

"However in cachexia the balance is tipped, with free radicals causing serious damage to DNA and body proteins. Protein production is significantly decreased and breakdown is dramatically increased. Muscle wasting is the inevitable outcome.

"We will be testing two existing therapies in combination to evaluate their effectiveness in stabilising the free radicals and preventing muscle breakdown.

"The first is oxypurinol, which is closely related to a drug used for over 50 years to treat gout. Oxypurinol suppresses a free radical producing enzyme believed to be overactive in patients with cachexia. The second is an omega 3 fatty acid called eicosapentenoic acid (EPA), which reduces free radical production."

The project recently received a funding boost from the Victorian Government, with Ms Vaughan awarded a Victorian Cancer Agency Palliative and Supportive Care in Cancer scholarship through the Victorian Cancer Agency.

"This funding support means that I can fulfill my passion to work in the field of cancer research," Ms Vaughan said.

"Cancer cachexia is a devastating, under-researched condition. I am pleased to be able to work on a project that could have direct, positive outcomes for cancer patients."

As well as Dr Lewandowski and Ms Vaughan, the project team includes Deakin PhD student Eddie Hinch, Deakin postdoctoral fellow Melanie Sullivan-Gunn, and Barwon Health'sRegional Director of Palliative Care, Associate Professor Peter Martin

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