Starving cancer with amino acids

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Amino acids are protein's building blocks and give your cells their structure. They also feed cancer. Researchers at the Cancer Research UK Beatson Institute and the University of Glasgow are trying to formulate a diet that will starve cancer but still give you the amino acids you need for your cells to create proteins.

The scientists learned that removing two non-essential amino acids – serine and glycine – slowed the development of lymphoma and intestinal cancer in mice. That same diet made some cancer cells morevulnerable to chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

Could a diet light in serine and glycine stall cancer growth in humans as well?

“Our findings suggest that restricting specific amino acids through a controlled diet plan could be an additional part of treatment for some cancer patients in future, helping to make other treatments more effective,” said Dr. Oliver Maddocks, a Cancer Research UK scientist at the University of Glasgow.

But it likely wouldn't be the kind of diet that becomes the topic of a best-selling book and all the rage in conversations at your gym's juice bar. It would be the type of diet you would undergo only with strict supervision by your doctor, and even then for short periods of time. Amino acids aren't the kind of nutrients you can just cut out of your diet with impunity.

On the positive side, although cancer cells are extremely dependent on getting amino acids from the diet, healthy cells are able to make sufficient serine and glycine on their own.

On the negative, cancers with an activated Kras gene – such as the always-stubborn pancreatic cancer – are much more resistant to the amino acid-shedding diet's effect.

“The next steps are clinical trials in people to see if giving a specialized diet that lacks these amino acids is safe and helps slow tumor growth as seen in mice. We’d also need to work out which patients are most likely to benefit, depending on the characteristics of their cancer,” said Dr. Emma Smith, science communication manager at Cancer Research UK.

The research has been published in Nature.