New York: A synthetic version of the "hunger hormone" ghrelin might help limit the loss of appetite that can come with cancer chemotherapy, a small study from Japan suggests.
Ghrelin is a hormone secreted by the gut to boost appetite. Because of that, scientists have been studying it as a target in the obesity war, which has included work on an anti-obesity "vaccine" that inhibits ghrelin. But the research has met with little success so far.
Since the hormone spurs hunger, in theory, infusions of synthetic ghrelin could help prevent the sometimes severe appetite loss caused by cancer drugs.
In particular, a commonly used cancer drug called cisplatin often causes nausea, vomiting and appetite loss -- and cuts the body`s natural ghrelin levels.
For the new study, Japanese researchers tested the effects of ghrelin infusions in 41 patients undergoing cisplatin treatment for advanced cancer of the esophagus.
Half of the patients were randomly assigned to have ghrelin infusions twice a day, before their meals, over one week of chemotherapy. The rest were given infusions of saline.
In the end, the ghrelin patients maintained better appetites and were able to take in almost 50 percent more calories per day than patients given saline.
Overall, more than half of the saline group had nausea, versus one in five ghrelin patients. And while half of the saline group had anorexia -- significant appetite loss -- during chemo, only one in six ghrelin patients did.
Dr. Yuichiro Hiura and colleagues at Osaka University report their findings in the journal Cancer. The study was funded by a grant from the Japanese government.
It appears to be the first to show that ghrelin may help cancer patients being treated with cisplatin, so further studies are needed, the researchers say.
There is already a medication -- one that decreases the activity of the hormone serotonin -- that eases nausea and vomiting in the first 24 hours of cisplatin treatment, Hiura`s team notes.
But, they add, lingering nausea and appetite loss in the following days are still a challenge to control. So ghrelin could offer a way to help with those longer-term effects.
Intensive chemotherapy with multiple drugs, including cisplatin, is commonly used for advanced-stage cancer, Hiura`s team writes. But side effects may keep many patients from completing their treatment.
Ultimately, the researchers say, the goal is to make chemotherapy easier for patients to get through -- and, it`s hoped, improve the treatment`s effectiveness.