Wasting in cancer

J Nutr. 1999 Jan;129(1S Suppl):243S-246S. doi: 10.1093/jn/129.1.243S.


Progressive weight loss is a common feature of many types of cancer and is responsible not only for a poor quality of life and poor response to chemotherapy, but also a shorter survival time than is found in patients with comparable tumors without weight loss. Although anorexia is common, a decreased food intake alone is unable to account for the changes in body composition seen in cancer patients, and increasing nutrient intake is unable to reverse the wasting syndrome. Although energy expenditure is increased in some patients, cachexia can occur even with a normal energy expenditure. Various factors have been investigated as mediators of tissue wasting in cachexia. These include cytokines such as tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha), interleukin-6 (IL-6), interferon-gamma (IFN-gamma) and leukemia inhibitory factor (LIF), as well as tumor-derived factors such as lipid mobilizing factor (LMF) and protein mobilizing factor (PMF), which can directly mobilize fatty acids and amino acids from adipose tissue and skeletal muscle respectively. Induction of lipolysis by the cytokines is thought to result from an inhibition of lipoprotein lipase (LPL), although clinical studies provide no evidence for an inhibition of LPL in the adipose tissue of cancer patients. Instead there is an increased expression of hormone sensitive lipase, the enzyme activated by LMF. Protein degradation in cachexia is associated with an increased activity of the ATP-ubiquitin-proteasome pathway. The biological activity of both the LMF and PMF was shown to be attenuated by eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). Clinical studies show that this polyunsaturated fatty acid is able to stabilize the rate of weight loss and adipose tissue and muscle mass in cachectic patients with unresectable pancreatic cancer. Knowledge of the mechanism of cancer cachexia should lead to the development of new therapeutic agents.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anorexia / metabolism
  • Energy Metabolism / physiology
  • HIV Wasting Syndrome / metabolism*
  • HIV Wasting Syndrome / pathology
  • Humans
  • Lipid Metabolism
  • Muscles / metabolism
  • Weight Loss / physiology