Energy boost for fatigued cancer patients

Cancer Research UK

Swallowing a specially designed energy drink each day could boost cancer patients left exhausted by chemotherapy, according to research published in the British Journal of Cancer1.

Fatigue is one of the most common side effects of treatment for cancer, robbing patients of the energy to perform everyday tasks and severely impairing their quality of life.

But Italian scientists have found that giving people a substance called levocarnitine - which is taken in a pineapple flavoured drink - seems to help them recover from the effects of treatment. In their study, 90 per cent of those who received the supplement recovered from their fatigue within a week.

Scientists believe many cases of fatigue - which affects 80 per cent of patients receiving chemotherapy - occur when treatment disrupts a patient's metabolism. This depletes levels of a molecule called carnitine, which is vital for providing energy to our muscles.

Lead researcher Dr Francesco Graziano, of Urbino Hospital in Italy, comments: "After chemotherapy, many patients have low levels of carnitine in their blood and we think that's one of the reasons they feel so exhausted. It seemed logical that boosting carnitine levels with a dietary supplement might restore that lost energy. Our study was the first to take this new approach to treating fatigue and the results, although preliminary, were very encouraging."

Dr Graziano and his colleagues studied 50 patients who had reported feeling fatigue during the course of their chemotherapy. They used detailed questionnaires to assess each patient's degree of fatigue and took blood samples to measure carnitine levels.

Researchers then gave patients an energy drink containing levocarnitine, which is converted to carnitine in the body. After a week of treatment, their progress was assessed.

On average, blood carnitine levels increased by 50 per cent over the course of the week. And the questionnaires revealed that 45 of the 50 patients (90 per cent) no longer felt fatigued.

Dr Graziano adds: "The quality of life of our patients improved markedly over the course of the week, and it seems likely that the improvements were a result of the supplements they were taking.

"We now need larger-scale trials, to test the extent to which the supplement can restore patients' energy levels. It could become an important way of maintaining quality of life for patients undergoing intensive treatment for cancer."

Prof Gordon McVie of Cancer Research UK, owners of the British Journal of Cancer, says: "Treating patients more effectively doesn't just mean keeping them alive for longer; it also means preserving their quality of life.

"We are getting better at reducing the side effects associated with modern drugs, but chemotherapy still robs many patients of the energy they need to live their life to the full. A simple dietary supplement to restore a patient's zip would be a valuable step forward and these initial results are certainly encouraging."

ENDS

  1. British Journal of Cancer86 (12)

Note to Editors:

The energy drink was taken daily, during or after meals.