Low-protein diet ‘starves’ cancer cells, finds a new study

Cancer represents a daunting concept prompting researchers to uncover any mechanisms that could offer the solution to the deadly problem. While research is yet to find a cure, green shots and treatment clues continue to emerge. A latest study found that a low-protein diet could halt the growth of colon cancer.

While protein is considered one of the key building blocks of a healthy diet, keeping the macronutrient at bay could help battle cancer.

Research, published in the journal Gastroenterology, suggests that a low-protein diet that limits amino acids – molecules that combine to form proteins – stopped cancer from growing and led to increased cell death.

This means that dietary changes could be a key to enhancing colon cancer treatment, according to the team from the University of Michigan Rogel Cancer Center finds.

The researchers penned that this simple diet tweak “starves” cancer cells, helping to overcome treatment resistance.

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How does it work?

Cancer cells need nutrients to thrive and grow, with one of the most important ones being “mTORC1”.

Dubbed as a master regulator of cell growth, mTORC1 allows cells to sense different nutrients and consequently grow and proliferate.

Senior author Yatrik M. Shah said: “In colon cancer, when you decrease the nutrients available in the tumours, the cells don’t know what to do.

“Without the nutrients to grow, they undergo a kind of crisis, which leads to massive cell death.”


This is where a low-protein diet steps in with its ability to block the nutrient signalling pathway that fires up mTORC1.

The research team found that the dietary change was found to alter nutritional signals through a complex called GATOR, which keeps mTORC1 in business.

Study first author Sumeet Solanki said: “We knew that nutrients were important in mTORC regulation but we didn’t know how they directly signal to mTORC.

“We discovered the nutrient signalling pathway is just as important to regulate mTORC as the oncogenic signalling pathway.”

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The problem is that people with cancer often experience muscle weakness and weight loss and limiting protein could exacerbate this.

Shah said: “Putting cancer patients on a protein-deficient diet long-term is not ideal.

“But if you can find key windows – like at the start of chemotherapy or radiation – when patients could go on a low protein diet for a week or two, we could potentially increase the efficacy of those treatments.”

Further research is currently needed to identify the potential therapeutic window where amino acids can be limited.

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