​The discovery is a major step towards understanding a critical health problem for cancer patients worldwide.

A team of researchers led by the Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS) and SingHealth clinician-scientists have discovered a new way of treating terminal weight loss in cancer patients. Known as cachexia, the terminal wasting syndrome affects 80% of advanced cancer patients, and is thought to cause 30% of all cancer deaths.

Cachexia patients present outward symptoms of severe, involuntary weight loss due to the wasting of muscle mass. The process is rapid and irreversible. Consequently, it reduces the patient’s ability to withstand cancer treatments like chemotherapy, and increases the risk of contracting secondary illnesses and infections.

"We are already planning our first clinical trials, which should start this year."
- Dr Iain Tan, Consultant, National Cancer Centre Singapore

While little is known about how cachexia develops, it is a long-held assumption that excessive burning of fats by the muscles (or fatty acid oxidation) is a side-effect of cachexia.

The Singapore team was able to overturn this assumption by using the latest ‘omics’ technology, revealing that fatty acid oxidation actually caused cachexia rather than just being a by-product.

“Based on this discovery, we are already planning our first clinical trials, which should start this year,” said Dr Iain Tan, a medical oncologist at the National Cancer Centre Singapore (NCCS), and a senior author on the study.

Lauded as a national effort, the study involved researchers from A*STAR, Duke-NUS, NCCS and cancer surgeons from the National University Hospital and Singapore General Hospital. The team plans on translating their research to benefit cancer patients worldwide.

“This is a great example of how different institutions across the country come together harnessing their expertise and resources to solve an important medical problem,” said Professor Teh Bin Tean, Deputy Director (Research) of NCCS and a senior author on the study.

“We all look forward to more fruits of such efforts.”