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Cachexia: looking yet not seeing

Alessandro Laviano MD*, Alessio Molfino MD, PhD

Version of Record online: 3 MAY 2016

DOI: 10.1002/jcsm.12120

How to Cite

Laviano, A., and Molfino, A. (2016) Cachexia: looking yet not seeing. Journal of Cachexia, Sarcopenia and Muscle, 7: 510–511. doi: 10.1002/jcsm.12120.

Cachexia is slowly becoming a relevant issue among healthcare professionals, even among those not directly involved in nutritional care. An example is given by the recent article published by Nature during the 8th cachexia Conference (Paris, 4–8 December 2015; society-scwd.org) which highlights this emerging interest of oncology clinicians and researchers.[1] Nevertheless, a long road still needs to be travelled, because major discrepancy exists between what we should do to treat and prevent cachexia and what is actually done in the real life of cancer patients. So, which is the gap still to be filled before cachexia prevention and treatment could be considered standard of care? And more importantly, will ever cancer cachexia treatment become a refundable therapy?

Cancer cachexia is a metabolic syndrome which heavily impacts on nutritional status.[2] There is now general consensus that cachexia is a negative prognostic factor in cancer patients. In contrast, whether nutritional support yields to better clinical outcome by improving nutritional status remains a debated issue.[3] Indeed, available literature does not allow for definitively assessing when, for how long and which type of nutritional support is effective in reducing morbidity, improving mortality and enhancing quality of life of cancer patients. But this absence of evidence does not justify withdrawal or withholding of nutrition therapy in cancer patients. It is recognized that ‘adding calories doesn't reverse cachexia’,[1] yet without adequate amount of calories and proteins no drug may effectively work against cachexia.

When facing a cachectic patients, it really seems that we look at his/her emaciation and the molecular pathways involved, but we do not see his/her need of calories and proteins. Indeed, the role of nutrition support in preventing or treating cancer cachexia is frequently ignored or overlooked, whereas targeting wasting-related molecular pathways is receiving scientific interest and funding priority. Therefore, whether cancer patients might be able to meet energy and protein requirements is rarely considered when devising a clinical trial.[4] Unfortunately, this attitude may contribute to the disappointing results obtained in investigating anti-cachexia drugs.[1] In fact, amino acid restriction, as it occurs in cachectic patients with reduced food intake, robustly activates proteolysis to preserve translation, independently of the use of anti-catabolic drugs.[5] Early integration of targeted drug therapies and effective management of symptoms reducing energy and protein intake appear a promising strategy to preserve nutritional status, and to enhance the efficacy of anticancer therapies.[6] In fact, cachexia is a cancer-related syndrome, and consequently its best treatment is the effective oncological management. However, because cachexia influences the delivery of chemotherapy and radiotherapy,[7] it should be targeted during anticancer treatment, and not considered when the tumour has become unresponsive to treatment. Corie Lok in Nature is right that cachexia is seen in the latest stages of the disease,[1] but it may develop years before the tumor is diagnosed.[8] In this regard, concurrent oncological management, i.e. targeting the tumour while concurrently addressing patient centred needs (i.e. weight loss, fatigue, pain, depression, etc.), has been already proved to significantly increase survival of patients with advanced disease.[9] It is now time to consider cachexia not only a target to enhance the quality of life of terminally advanced cancer patients, but an opportunity to enhance the response to anticancer treatments.

By targeting clinical outcome rather than nutritional status, it is likely that nutrition care will receive acknowledgement as an important pillar of palliative and concurrent care. But, will this make nutritional support a refundable treatment? Increased longevity and extrinsic factors will bring more and more cases of cancer,[10, 11] a relevant proportion of them being diagnosed at an advanced stage. Cancer is an elusive disease, and current chemotherapy and radiotherapy already showed their limits. Combination of immune therapies has been already proposed to prevent the development of cancer cell resistance.[12] The cancer market is expected to drain large economic resources at an impressive pace and to reach more than 110 US$ billions in 2024.[13] In this alarming scenario, results of adequately powered, homogenous, clinically, and nutritionally oriented trials will be eagerly needed, to enhance the efficacy of anticancer treatments and their cost-effectiveness. Then, is it so naïve to dream of combination therapies including drugs targeting molecular targets and nutritional strategies to preserve adequate energy and protein intake?


The authors certify that they comply with the ethical guidelines for authorship and publishing of the Journal of Cachexia, Sarcopenia, and Muscle.[14]

Conflict of Interest

Prof. Laviano has received honoraria for independent lectures at nutrition industry sponsored scientific and educational events.

Dr. Molfino declares no conflict of interest.


1Lok C. Cachexia: the last illness. Nature 2015;528:182183.2Argiles JM, Busquets S, Stemmler B, Lopez-Soriano FJ. Cancer cachexia: understanding the molecular basis. Nat Rev Cancer 2014;14:754762.3Laviano A. Numbers which count. Clin Nutr 2016;35:56.4Garcia JM, Boccia RV, Graham CD, Yan Y, Duus EM, Allen S, et al. Anamorelin for patients with cancer cachexia: an integrated analysis of two phase 2, randomized, placebo-controlled, double blind trials. Lancet Oncol 2015;16:108116.5Vabulas RM, Hartl FU. Protein synthesis upon acute nutrient restriction relies on proteasome function. Science 2005;310:19601963.6De Waele E, Mattens S, Honoré PM, Spapen H, De Grève J, Pen JJ. Nutrition therapy in cachectic cancer patients. The Tight Caloric Control (TiCaCo) pilot trial. Appetite 2015;91:298301.7Mir O, Coriat R, Blanchet B, Durand JP, Boudou-Rouquette P, Michels J, et al. Sarcopenia predicts early dose-limiting toxicities and pharmacokinetics of sorafenib in patients with hepatocellular carcinoma. PLoS One 2012;7:e37563.8Mayers JR, Wu C, Clish CB, Kraft P, Torrence ME, Fiske BP, et al. Elevation of circulating branched-chain amino acids is an early event in human pancreatic adenocarcinoma development. Nat Med 2014;10:11931198.9Bakitas MA, Tosteson TD, Li Z, Lyons KD, Hull JG, Li Z, et al. Early versus delayed initiation of concurrent palliative oncology care: patient outcomes in the ENABLE III Randomized Controlled Trial. J Clin Oncol 2015;33:14381445.10Tomasetti C, Vogelstein B. Variation in cancer risk among tissues can be explained by the number of stem cell divisions. Nature 2015;347:7881.11Wu S, Powers S, Zhu W, Hannun YA. Substantial contribution of extrinsic risk factors to cancer development. Nature 2016;529:4347.12Atkins MB, Larkin J. Immunotherapy combined or sequenced with targeted therapy in the treatment of solid tumors: current perspectives. J Natl Cancer Inst 2016;doi:10.1093/jnci/djv414.13Webster RM. Combination therapies in oncology. Nat Rev Drug Discov 2016;15:8182.14vonHaeling S, Morley JE, Coats AJS, Anker SD. Ethical guidelines for authorship and publishing in the Journal of Cachexia, Sarcopenia, and Muscle. J Cachexia Sarcopenia Muscle 2015;4:315315.