The effect of the polyunsaturated fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and γ-linolenic acid (GLA) on host body weight loss and tumor growth has been investigated in mice bearing a cachexia-inducing colon adenocarcinoma, the MAC16. EPA effectively inhibited both host weight loss and tumor growth rate in a dose-related manner with optimal effects being observed at a dose level of 1.25 to 2.5 g/kg. At these concentrations host body weight was effectively maintained, and there was a delay in the progression of growth of the tumor, such that overall survival was approximately doubled in EPA-treated animals, using the criteria dictated by the United Kingdom Coordinating Committee for the welfare of animals with neoplasms. Even when tumor growth resumed, weight loss did not occur. Animals bearing the MAC16 tumor showed a decreased protein synthesis and an increased degradation in skeletal muscle. Treatment with EPA significantly reduced protein degradation without an effect on protein synthesis.

The effect of GLA on both host body weight loss and tumor growth was much less pronounced than that of EPA, with an effect only being seen at a dose of 5 g/kg, at which some toxicity was observed. In vitro studies showed that while EPA was effective in inhibiting tumor-induced lipolysis, GLA was ineffective in this respect. However, prostaglandin E1, which is formed from GLA in vivo, showed partial reversal of tumor-induced lipolysis and probably accounted for the anticachectic effect of GLA. These results suggest that EPA as the pure fatty acid should be considered for clinical investigation as both an anticachectic and antitumor agent, since prior work has shown that the other major component of fish oil docosahexaenoic acid is without pharmacological activity in this system.


This work has been supported by a grant from the Cancer Research Campaign.

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