Ohio State Researchers Examine Rapid Weight Loss Associated with Cancer

image of medical drip in hospital

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Thanks to a grant from the National Institutes of Health, Ohio State University researchers are examining how to combat the dangerous, rapid weight loss that often accompanies cancer, chemotherapy and other serious diseases and the treatments designed to fight them.

The two-year, $361,000 grant from the National Cancer Institute will allow researchers to solve mysteries surrounding the phenomenon called cachexia, said principal investigator Martha Belury.

Belury is the Carol S. Kennedy Professor of Nutrition in Ohio State’s College of Education and Human Ecology and is a scientist with the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. OARDC is the research arm of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.

Many people associate weight loss in cancer patients with a loss of appetite due to feeling ill from either the disease or the accompanying chemotherapy or radiation treatments, Belury said.

But scientists understand that with cachexia, there’s something more complex going on in the body.

With cachexia, the body’s metabolism changes on a cellular level, vastly increasing energy consumption. As a result, the body quickly uses up calories and moves to finding energy from fat stores and muscle tissue, causing rapid weight loss and resulting in muscle loss and general weakness. It’s not just a matter of a loss of appetite.

“Rapid weight loss -- more than 5 percent of body weight over three to six months -- is likely due to this hyper-metabolic condition,” Belury said.

The National Cancer Institute estimates that cachexia is the immediate cause of death in 20 to 40 percent of cancer patients.

While the loss of muscle mass leads to a poor prognosis for the patient and reduced quality of life, “it is the loss of adipose tissue (fat stores) that is the strongest predictor for mortality in patients with cachexia,” Belury said.

Because of the strong relationship of the loss of fat stores with mortality, and because fat stores are among the first to be targeted in cases of cancer-related cachexia, Belury hopes to find a way to interrupt the mechanisms that cause such fat loss.

Previous research has shown that in mice, fat loss related to tumors occurs at the same time the mice lose the ability to secrete cell-signaling proteins called adipokines. Belury is focusing on a specific adipokine, called adiponectin.

Adiponectin is known to play a significant role in decreasing inflammation and modulating metabolism, both of which are associated with lessening muscle loss. Adiponectin also improves insulin sensitivity, which helps glucose enter cells to allow it to be used for energy.

Belury’s theory is that the loss of adiponectin in patients with cancer-related cachexia is a key driver in how quickly the condition develops.

In this study, Belury’s team will examine how adiponectin affects certain aspects of cancer cachexia, including metabolism. Then they’ll look at the role adiponectin plays in the regeneration of muscle in mice.

“There are currently no effective treatments for cancer cachexia,” Belury said.

She hopes the study provides answers about how the loss of fat stores and muscle tissue occurs, ultimately resulting in finding ways to treat the condition and improve cancer survival rates.

Working with Belury on the project are Peter Reiser, professor of biosciences in the College of Dentistry, and Rebecca Andridge, assistant professor of biostatistics in the College of Public Health.


CFAES News Team
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Martha Belury