Immunotherapy has proven to be an effective treatment against several cancers, especially melanoma. Drugs targeting PD-1/PD-L1 and CTLA-4 are the first to ever be FDA-approved to treat cancer, and those who have used the drug have seen promising results. Studies have shown that the 10-year survival rate for melanoma has even increased from 10% to 50% as a result of immunotherapy.
But more than 9,000 Americans still die every year as a result of advanced melanoma that has taken over other organs in the body. While many patients do see great results from immunotherapy treatments, several still don’t, and scientists are conducting much research to try and determine how more patients can respond to the drugs. Many studies have shown that tumors with more DNA mutations could respond better, but there are also many other factors at stake.
A new study out of MD Anderson Cancer Center showed that proper nutrition could be one of the most important factors in determining whether patients see results from immunotherapy. According to Christine Spencer, PhD, researcher at the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, the team discovered that “diet and supplements appear to have an effect on a patient’s ability to respond to cancer immunotherapy, most likely due to changes in their gut microbiome.” Specifically, it seems that those who ate a diet high in fiber had better results than those who ate poorly.
The study involved examining fecal samples from 113 patients with melanoma who were undergoing immunotherapy treatment. The team analyzed the kinds of bacteria present in each patient’s gut microbiome, determining that the more diverse the bacteria, the better the patient’s response to immunotherapy.
Participants completed daily dietary surveys, which showed the researchers that those eating a high-fiber diet consisting of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables had the most fruitful gut bacteria. Those who ate a large amount of sugars and processed meats had a lower chance of responding to immunotherapy. Specifically, patients who consumed a diet high in fiber were 5 times more likely to respond to the treatment.
The study shows that something as simple as a nutritional regimen could be the difference between a patient responding to immunotherapy or not. The research is still in its early phases, and according to The Lancet, nearly 39 clinical trials are currently exploring the importance of the gut microbiome in treating cancer. The trials involve three immunotherapy drugs. One trial out of the University of Pittsburgh is attempting to perform fecal matter transplants in patients who don’t respond to anti-PD-1 drugs. The idea is to test whether the transplant could improve the drug’s efficacy.
If we are to take anything from this study, it’s that maintaining a healthy diet is crucial both in fighting cancer and just in maintaining a strong immune system. Incorporating more fiber into your diet can certainly go a long way in protecting your overall health.