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Wednesday, 27 June, 2001, 23:02 GMT 00:02 UK
Low calorie diet 'could halt cancer'
Cancer scanner
Low calorie intake could help prevent cancers
Eating a low calorie diet could help affect the ability of cancer cells to reproduce within the body.

Scientists in Israel developed a mathematical model to show how fast-growing cancer cells need more calories to survive than healthy ones.

However, so far there have been no clinical trials to show whether this works in humans and dieticians are urging people with cancer not to starve themselves in a bid to beat their tumours.

We don't know if we can improve the efficacy of our cancer therapy if we put people on different dietary regimens. We need to do the studies

Dr Steven Clinton

Cancer risks

Obesity and eating an unhealthy diet are thought to raise the risk of developing cancer.

Dr David Eichler, of Ben Gurion University in Be'er Sheva, Israel, studied whether limiting the amount of food eaten to only what is necessary could have a direct effect on the cancer cells.

He simulated how cell populations grow when they have to compete for a limited supply of energy.

Cancer cell
Fast-growing cancer cells need more calories to survive than healthy ones
He found that normal cells multiply more slowly, but that fast-growing abnormal cells such as those often found in some cancers died off.

Dr Eichler said that the cells needed a disproportionate amount of energy to reproduce at such high rates.

"Cells with a really strong energy need have a dilemma. Either they can't grow faster than the rest of the body - or they'll die by trying to reproduce faster than the limited energy supply allows them to."

He said that this suggested that eating minimal, but adequate amounts of food could help starve tumours.

Clinical trials

Dr Steven Clinton, a cancer physician and researcher at the Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, told New Scientist that it was time to test the thesis in clinical trials.

"We don't know if we can improve the efficacy of our cancer therapy if we put people on different dietary regimens. We need to do the studies."

He said that he and his colleagues had done tests on rats with prostate cancer and found that the rats on a reduced-calorie diet had smaller tumours than the rats who ate everything they wanted.

Dr Clinton said: "It's very clear that diet restriction will inhibit the growth of the tumour."

But he said that Dr Eichler's model applied only to cancers in which tumours replicate faster than normal cells and that this was not always the case.

A spokesman for the Cancer Research Campaign said: "Epidemiological evidence shows that people in countries with lower intake of calories have a lower incidence of certain cancers, such as bowel and breast, than in countries with high calorific intake.

"Obesity has also been identified as a risk factor for many cancers, so the results of this theoretical mathematical study seem to fit with established evidence.

"This reinforces the balanced diet/healthy body weight message health professionals have been urging for years."

Catherine Collins, of the British Dietetic Association, warned that although the study showed some interesting research, people should not start cutting back their food intake until the work had been proved in clinical trials.

"This is an interesting study in the test tube, but it would be very hard to transfer into the body because of the particular way the body works.

"But this is certainly adding to the information that certain nutrients aid tumour growth."

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