Mechanisms of cancer cachexia

Physiol Rev. 2009 Apr;89(2):381-410. doi: 10.1152/physrev.00016.2008.


Up to 50% of cancer patients suffer from a progressive atrophy of adipose tissue and skeletal muscle, called cachexia, resulting in weight loss, a reduced quality of life, and a shortened survival time. Anorexia often accompanies cachexia, but appears not to be responsible for the tissue loss, particularly lean body mass. An increased resting energy expenditure is seen, possibly arising from an increased thermogenesis in skeletal muscle due to an increased expression of uncoupling protein, and increased operation of the Cori cycle. Loss of adipose tissue is due to an increased lipolysis by tumor or host products. Loss of skeletal muscle in cachexia results from a depression in protein synthesis combined with an increase in protein degradation. The increase in protein degradation may include both increased activity of the ubiquitin-proteasome pathway and lysosomes. The decrease in protein synthesis is due to a reduced level of the initiation factor 4F, decreased elongation, and decreased binding of methionyl-tRNA to the 40S ribosomal subunit through increased phosphorylation of eIF2 on the alpha-subunit by activation of the dsRNA-dependent protein kinase, which also increases expression of the ubiquitin-proteasome pathway through activation of NFkappaB. Tumor factors such as proteolysis-inducing factor and host factors such as tumor necrosis factor-alpha, angiotensin II, and glucocorticoids can all induce muscle atrophy. Knowledge of the mechanisms of tissue destruction in cachexia should improve methods of treatment.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adipose Tissue / metabolism
  • Adipose Tissue / pathology
  • Atrophy
  • Cachexia / drug therapy
  • Cachexia / physiopathology*
  • Energy Metabolism / physiology
  • Humans
  • Muscle, Skeletal / metabolism
  • Muscle, Skeletal / pathology
  • Neoplasms / physiopathology*