Protein gels to stop deadly effects of muscle wasting due to cancer
One-in-five cancer deaths is due to effects of muscle wasting in patients, rather than the disease itself, according to food researchers in UCC.
The muscles were not just those involved in movement, but were also needed to support breathing and the heart, said Dr Aoife Ryan, dietitian and lecturer in nutritional sciences at UCC.
The UCC researchers are currently involved in the development of innovative protein gels, dietary drinks and appetite-increasing supplements to help these cancer patients who are experiencing involuntary and at times life-threatening weight loss.
"Several clinical trials have shown that, if we give patients with cancer calories, protein and a very high dose of a fish oil, it will dampen down inflammation and they will lose less muscle. Keeping patients active through exercise is also hugely important"
She said up to 80pc of cancer patients unintentionally lose weight, which can have a devastating impact on their quality of life, reducing their ability to tolerate chemotherapy and leading to poor survival rates.
"The seriousness of this issue is illustrated by the fact that one-in-five cancer deaths is caused from wasting, not from cancer.
The wastage affects not just the muscles involved in movement but also the muscles involved in breathing and in the heart.
"Unfortunately, there is no safe drug to prevent or reverse this or to safely stimulate appetite.
"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 weight loss is actually muscle. It is rapid loss of muscle."
She said cancer patients often developed severe muscle wasting called 'sarcopenia' - very low muscle mass - which was most commonly seen in very elderly people and was an inevitable consequence of growing very old.
"We have looked at over a thousand patients having chemotherapy here in Cork and only 4pc 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."