Low carb

Cancer: Keto diet shows promise for preventing and treating bowel cancer

Cancer: Keto diet shows promise for preventing and treating bowel cancer

Cancer is fierce. Despite devoting countless resources to the task of stopping it – it still kills millions every year. However, while research has yet to find a cure or prevention, green shoots continue to emerge. To research conducted by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine suggests that low-carb “ketogenic” diets may halt the growth of bowel cancer, also known as colorectal cancer.

Researchers have found that a molecule produced in the liver in response to low-carb “ketogenic” diets has a powerful effect in suppressing the growth of colorectal tumors and may be useful as a prevention and treatment for these cancers.

In the study, published in Nature, researchers initially found that mice on a low-carb, high-fat ketogenic diet had a striking resistance to the development and growth of colorectal tumors.

The scientists then traced this effect to beta-hydroxybutyrate (BHB), a small organic molecule produced in the liver in response to keto diets or starvation.

“Our results suggest that this naturally occurring molecule, BHB, may one day become a standard part of colorectal cancer care and prevention,” said study co-lead author Maayan Levy, PhD, assistant professor of microbiology at Penn Medicine, whose lab collaborated with the lab of Christoph Thaiss, PhD, also an assistant professor of microbiology.

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In the study, Professor Levy and Professor Thaiss and their teams sought to determine, with experiments in mice, whether different types of diet could inhibit the development and growth of colorectal cancer.

They put six groups of mice on diets that had varying fat-to-carbohydrate ratios, then used a standard chemical technique that normally induces colorectal tumors.

They found that the two most ketogenic diets, with a fat to carb ratio of 90% – one used lard (pork fat), the other Crisco (mostly soybean oil) – prevented the development of colorectal tumors in most animals on these diets.

In contrast, all animals on the other diets, including low-fat and high-carb diets, developed tumors.

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Even when the researchers started feeding these diets to mice after colorectal tumors had begun to grow, the diets showed a “treatment effect” by significantly slowing tumor growth and proliferation.

In subsequent experiments, the scientists determined that this tumor suppression is associated with slower stem cell production of new epithelial cells lining the colon.

Ultimately, they attributed this slowing of intestinal cell growth to BHB – normally produced by the liver as part of a “starvation response” and triggered in this case by low-carb diets.

BHB is known to work as an alternative fuel source for key organs in low carb conditions.

However, researchers have shown that it is not only a fuel source, but also a powerful growth-slowing signal, at least for cells in the intestinal lining.

They were able to replicate the tumor-suppressing effects of keto diets simply by giving the mice BHB, either in their water or via an infusion that mimics the molecule’s natural secretion by the liver.

The team showed that BHB exerts its growth-slowing effect on intestinal cells by activating a surface receptor called Hcar2.

This in turn stimulates the expression of a growth-slowing gene, Hopx.

Experiments with cells from the intestinal mucosa of humans provided evidence that BHB has the same growth-slowing effect on these cells, via human versions of Hcar2 and Hopx.

However, “clinical trials of BHB supplementation are needed before a recommendation can be made on its use for prevention or treatment,” Professor Thaiss said.

What’s in the keto diet?

The keto diet is very high in fat, enough protein for growth, and very low in carbs.

It excludes the following high-carb culprits:

  • Foods high in sugar, including sweets, some soft drinks, puddings, chocolate, cakes
  • Bread
  • Rice
  • Pasta
  • Cereals and grains.

It includes the following in small amounts:

  • Dairy products (which contain a natural sugar called lactose)
  • Fruit
  • Vegetables – especially starchy foods like potatoes, butternut squash, cassava, pumpkin, yams, parsnips; and legumes, including peas, beans and lentils.

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