Cachexia is a condition characterized by loss of body mass — including muscular atrophy — that is usually accompanied by severe weakness and fatigue. Many people who go through cancer experience this.
It appears to be “responsible for the death of 22 [percent] of cancer patients.”
What exactly causes this condition — which appears in some patients but not in others — remains unclear, and options to manage and address it are scarce.
But recently, researchers from the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston — led by Dr. Melinda Sheffield-Moore, from the Department of Health and Kinesiology — have been investigating the potential of administering testosterone in addition to chemotherapy in order to ameliorate the impact of cachexia.
“We hoped to demonstrate these [cancer] patients [who received testosterone treatment] would go from not feeling well enough to even get out of bed to at least being able to have some basic quality of life that allows them to take care of themselves and receive therapy.”
Dr. Melinda Sheffield-Moore
The researchers’ findings — now published in the Journal of Cachexia, Sarcopenia and Muscle — confirm that administering testosterone to individuals experiencing cachexia can, in fact, improve their quality of life to some extent, by restoring some independence of movement.
The most widely used approach to manage cachexia is special nutrition treatments, but these often fail to prevent or redress the loss of body mass.
So, Dr. Sheffield-Moore and team decided to investigate the potential of testosterone based on existing knowledge that this hormone can help build up muscle mass.
“We already know that testosterone builds skeletal muscle in healthy individuals,” she says, “so we tried using it in a population at a high risk of muscle loss, so these patients could maintain their strength and performance status to be able to receive standard cancer therapies.”
The patients received chemotherapy, radiotherapy, or both, in order to treat the cancer. For 7 weeks during their treatment, some also received a placebo (the control cohort), while others received testosterone.
Dr. Sheffield-Moore and colleagues noticed that the participants who had been given extra testosterone had maintained total body mass and actually increased lean body mass (body mass minus body fat) by 3.2 percent.
“Patients randomized to the group receiving testosterone as an adjuvant to their standard of care chemotherapy and/or radiation treatment also demonstrated enhanced physical activity,” she continues.
“They felt well enough to get up and take care of some of their basic activities of daily living, like cooking, cleaning, and bathing themselves,” says Dr. Sheffield-Moore.
This effect could make a world of difference to people with cancer, as it allows them to maintain more autonomy.
At present, she and her team are looking to describe cancer patients’ muscle proteomes — the totality of proteins found in skeletal muscles — so as to understand how cancer in general, and specifically cachexia, affects their composition.
According to Dr. Sheffield-Moore, “What the proteome tells us is which particular proteins in the skeletal muscles were either positively or negatively affected by testosterone or by cancer, respectively.”
“It allows us to begin to dig into the potential mechanisms behind cancer cachexia,” she claims.
The scientists’ ultimate goal is to be able to support individuals likely to experience cachexia in continuing to support standard cancer treatment, and maintaining, as much as possible, their quality of life.