Can a High-Fat Diet Beat Cancer?
By Richard Friebe
The theory is simple: If most aggressive cancers rely on the fermentation of sugar for growing and dividing, then take away the sugar and they should stop spreading. Meanwhile, normal body and brain cells should be able to handle the sugar starvation; they can switch to generating energy from fatty molecules called ketone bodies — the body's main source of energy on a fat-rich diet — an ability that some or most fast-growing and invasive cancers seem to lack.
The Würzburg trial, funded by the Otzberg, Germany–based diet food company Tavartis, which supplies the researchers with food packages, is still in its early, difficult stages. "One big problem we have," says Schmidt, sitting uncomfortably on a small, wooden chair in the crammed tea kitchen of Kämmerer's lab, "is that we are only allowed to enroll patients who have completely run out of all other therapeutic options." That means that most people in the study are faring very badly to begin with. All have exhausted traditional treatments, such as surgery, radiation and chemo, and even some alternative ones like hyperthermia and autohemotherapy. Patients in the study have pancreatic tumors and aggressive brain tumors called glioblastomas, among other cancers; participants are recruited primarily because their tumors show high glucose metabolism in PET scans.
Four of the patients were so ill, they died within the first week of the study. Others, says Schmidt, dropped out because they found it hard to stick to the no-sweets diet: "We didn't expect this to be such a big problem, but a considerable number of patients left the study because they were unable or unwilling to renounce soft drinks, chocolate and so on."
The good news is that for five patients who were able to endure three months of carb-free eating, the results were positive: the patients stayed alive, their physical condition stabilized or improved and their tumors slowed or stopped growing, or shrunk. These early findings have elicited "very positive reactions and an increased interest from colleagues," Kämmerer says, while cautioning that the results are preliminary and that the study was not designed to test efficacy, but to identify side effects and determine the safety of the diet-based approach.