‘Keto’ molecule may be useful in preventing and treating colorectal cancer

A Penn study finds beta-hydroxybutyrate, an alternative-energy molecule produced by the body in response to starvation or low-carb diets, strongly suppresses the growth of colorectal tumors.

A molecule produced in the liver in response to low-carb “ketogenic” diets has a powerful effect in suppressing colorectal tumor growth and may be useful as a preventive and treatment of such cancers, according to a new study from researchers at the Perelman School of Medicine.

Microscopic view of columnar epithelium in the gut.

In the study, published in Nature, researchers initially found that mice on low-carb, high-fat ketogenic diets have a striking resistance to colorectal tumor development and growth. The scientists then traced this effect to beta-hydroxybutyrate (BHB), a small organic molecule produced in the liver in response to keto diets or starvation.

“Our findings suggest that this natural molecule, BHB, could someday become a standard part of colorectal cancer care and prevention,” says study co-senior author Maayan Levy, an assistant professor of microbiology, whose laboratory collaborated with the lab of Christoph Thaiss, also an assistant professor of microbiology. The study’s first author is Oxana Dmitrieva-Posocco, a postdoctoral researcher in Levy’s lab.

In the study, Levy, Thaiss, and their teams set out to determine whether different types of diet could inhibit colorectal cancer development and growth. They put six groups of mice on diets that had varying fat-to-carb ratios, and then used a standard chemical technique that normally induces colorectal tumors.

They found that the two most ketogenic diets, with 90% fat-to-carb ratios—one used lard, the other Crisco—prevented colorectal tumor development in most of the animals on those diets. The researchers are now setting up just such a clinical trial of BHB—which is widely available as a dieting supplement—in colorectal cancer patients. They are also continuing to study BHB’s potential anticancer effects in other parts of the body, and are investigating the effects of other molecules produced under ketogenic conditions.

Read more at Penn Medicine News.