Background: In hypermetabolic situations, glutamine is intensively used by rapidly dividing cells such as enterocytes, lymphocytes, and fibroblasts as nitrogen source and/or alternative energy fuel. It is hypothesized that in cancer patients the increased glutamine demands of the host increase the capacity of endogenous production resulting in a strong glutamine deprivation with detrimental effects on organ functions. In long-term periods of cancer cachexia, an adequate nutrition support including glutamine can essentially contribute to cover glutamine needs and, thus, to spare energy reserves of the host and to retard severe complications such as multi-organ failure. Due to the early in vitro knowledge that cancer cells preferably consume glutamine, oncologists often refuse to supply glutamine to the tumor-bearing host to avoid any potential risk. An objective evaluation whether supplemental glutamine supports tumor growth in vivo is, however, still lacking.
Aim of the study: The present review evaluates in vivo experimental and clinical data with respect to potential effects of glutamine administration in tumor-bearing hosts and draws conclusions for the use of glutamine supplements in clinical oncology.
Methods: Experimental and clinical intervention studies were identified in a systematic review of MEDLINE Database (last entry: June 2008) using key search terms and review articles. These studies were supplemented with reports identified through manual searches and other studies previously known by the authors.
Results: Numerous experimental studies (rat/mouse model) show that oral/enteral or intravenous glutamine supports metabolism of the tumor-bearing host and can ameliorate gastrointestinal toxicity of therapeutical measures. Within the last two decades, 36 (24 oral/enteral, 12 parenteral) clinical studies evaluating the tolerance, safety and effects of glutamine in various patient groups have been published. In the great majority of these clinical studies, glutamine supplementation in cancer patients improves host metabolism and clinical situation without increasing tumor growth. Potential mechanisms of glutamine effects include maintenance of mucosal integrity, improved immune competence, inhibition of cell proliferation, increased apoptosis rate, increased synthesis of glutathione, induction of heat shock protein synthesis, and increased synthesis of glucagons-like peptides.
Conclusions: In various clinical situations, appropriate exogenous glutamine supply is safe and can beneficially contribute to diminish risks of high-dose chemotherapy and radiation. In addition, there is some evidence that adequate glutamine availability can beneficially affect outcome, especially in patients undergoing bone marrow transplantation.