How to prevent cancer weight loss

More promising cancer research has been revealed on the last day of the British Science Festival in Guildford.

This time it’s a possible treatment for cachexia, the debilitating weight loss and muscle wasting that afflicts about half of all cancer patients. It is particularly severe in gastro-intestinal and lung cancer, and is responsible for an estimated 25 per cent of cancer mortality. No specific treatments for cachexia are available.

Michael Tisdale and colleagues at Aston University in Birmingham have discovered a molecule produced by tumours, called proteolysis inducing factor or PIF for short, which triggers muscle loss.

PIF has a “receptor” on the surface of muscle cells, which can be blocked with an antibody. That stops the molecule getting into the muscles and prevents cachexia.

The project is still at an early stage. Lab tests have shown that antibodies block the action of PIF linked in tissue culture. The researchers are now looking for the best humanised antibody, which might be ready to start clinical trials within three years.

The Aston team has licensed the treatment for development by Halsa Pharmaceuticals, based in Texas. “We went round several British biotech companies but they were not interested,” said Prof Tisdale.

In fact one British company, Ark Therapeutics, has a cachexia candidate in clinical trials – a more conventional “small molecule” drug called Vitor, developed originally to treat high blood pressure. It counteracts the effects of muscle wasting by stimulating mitchondria (the cell’s microscopic power packs) to produce more energy and reduces the breakdown of muscle proteins.

But if the Aston treatment works – a big if for an approach that has not even for tested in animals let alone people – it will be a more direct attack on the underlying cause of cachexia.

Oncologists would welcome any specific cachexia treatment, which could prolong and improve the lives of millions of cancer patients.

The world of research

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Clive Cookson, the FT's science editor, picks out the research that everyone should know about, in fields from astronomy to zoology. He also discusses key policy issues, from R&D funding to science education. He'll cover the weird and wonderful, as well as the serious side of science.