Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the U.S., but researchers hope to improve that statistic through a new treatment undergoing human clinical trials right now. The method is called precision nutrition and it involves starving a tumor. It has researchers very optimistic about the future of cancer patients.
Anand Parikh is a co-founder of Faeth Therapeutics, a company born from three leading cancer research teams.
"So, essentially, what I like to say is we're developing an entirely new way to attack tumors beyond the typical radiation, surgery and drugs," Parikh said. "We are one of the first companies and one of the first groups to be exploring this. There's been a lot of academic research, but unfortunately, not much done in patients in the clinic."
The idea is that tumors can be starved of the nutrients they need to grow if cancer patients follow a specific diet. So, Faeth Therapeutics is developing meals for cancer patients to eat. Christopher Graham is the culinary lead.
"I look to see, how many colors of the rainbow can I incorporate in terms of produce or vegetables or plant foods?" Graham said. "If there's an animal protein involved, we look for the most sustainable sources of animal protein that we can find, preferably animals who eat a natural diet."
Then he uses software to break down exact amounts and ingredients to build meals that are shipped out twice a week to patients across the country. Right now, they're providing food for a dozen patients, but the company hopes to support more than a hundred patients in just a couple of months.
"Long-term goal is to make this available for anyone who has cancer," Graham said.
According to Duke University cancer researcher Jason Locasale, who is not affiliated with Faeth Therapeutics, the concept of using food to starve tumors has been around for a century, but it wasn't until the past two decades that the research really started to come together.
Multiple peer-reviewed studies between 2012 and 2018 have been published to support the science behind precision nutrition.
"Basically, it started from looking at cancer cells in petri dishes and observing that if you change the nutrient composition of what's in the petri dish, cancer grows very differently," Locasale said.
Considering each tumor is unique like fingerprints, it's not a simple science. However, when asked to break it down, Parikh gives an example involving pancreatic cancer.
"So, typically, a protein will be comprised of any number of 20 amino acids," Parikh said. "I think we all remember this from high school biology, that amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. So for example, we looked to starve tumors in one of our programs in pancreatic cancer of three particular amino acids. So we say out of the 20, we think these three are really, really important for a tumor to grow and spread which is what a tumor wants to do. And so we take away those three."
Locasale says there's still lots of research and testing needed.
"Some of these diets we're looking at while they, you know, they may be great for cancer, they may be bad for other things," Locasale said.
However, considering cancer therapies have remained largely unchanged for decades, Parikh says he's hopeful this science will prevent more cancer deaths in the future.
"Ten years from now, you're not just asking your doctor what chemotherapy should I be on, but you're asking, 'Well, what's the precision nutrition that I should be taking alongside this chemotherapy to maximize its efficacy?'" Parikh said.
Faeth Therapeutics is currently focusing on four cancers: pancreatic, ovarian, endometrial, and colorectal. If you would like to participate in the precision nutrition program, you can apply at faeththerapeutics.com