Breakthrough research from LIMS could improve the lives of cancer sufferers

Breakthrough research from LIMS could improve the lives of cancer sufferers

An international research team led by the Department of Biochemistry and Genetics at the La Trobe Institute for Molecular Science (LIMS) has identified a cause of the wasting condition called cachexia that kills one third of all cancer victims across the world.

Cachexia, also called ‘wasting syndrome’, affects the body’s metabolism, which causes loss of weight, predominantly in the form of muscle atrophy, which causes weakness, fatigue and also problems like anaemia. When a patient gets cachexia, it can make them too weak to be treated for cancer. Currently, there are no FDA approved drugs for use in the treatment of cachexia.

These findings could result into huge benefits for people with advanced cancers – and their families.

“If we can arrest cachexia it will give people extra time, improved quality of life, make them stronger and allow for therapy to continue. This is a very significant development.”

Professor Nick Hoogenraad

Real impact

In Australia alone, projections estimate 127,000 new cases of cancer will be diagnosed this year, with this number only to increase in the future. It’s the second-most common cause of death in Australia after cardiovascular disease. Statistically, up to 80 per cent of cancer sufferers will get cachexia.

This can have immense impacts on the lives of cancer sufferers and their relatives and friends. Ceasing treatment means cancer patients have less time with their families, but there are other more subtle affects. Sam Porter, chair of nursing research at Queen’s University Belfast, whose research focus is palliative care, argues that cachexia can strain connections with a patient’s loved ones. Porter wrote earlier this year, “A treatment to effectively reverse this cycle has not been developed.”

The culprit molecule

The research breakthrough has focused on the effect of the Fn14 molecule. This molecule is not present in healthy tissue, but the body switches it on when it’s needed, for example, to help heal a wound. The Fn14 molecule is switched on in cancer cells, but instead of helping – it makes it worse. For reasons not yet completely understood, the Fn14 molecule causes cachexia.

The general consensus had been that the spread of cancer led to the loss of appetite and nutritional complications called cachexia. However, in the research published today in the journal Cell, the 28-member international research team has shown that by blocking a molecule called Fn14 they could stop the cachexia, regardless of the presence of a tumour.

Lead author of the Cell paper, Dr Amelia Johnston, said that “Fn14 has been known to be involved in cancer but it was a surprise to us that it caused the wasting condition.” The researchers found that if they could block the Fn14 molecule from being switched on in cancer cells they could prevent the onset of that disease.


“Our treatment is an ‘antibody’ directed against Fn14, and because antibodies are very specific to their target, this means treatment is less likely to come with the unwanted side effects of other therapies such as many chemotherapy drugs.”

Dr Amelia Johnston

A treatment is being developed, however this development and the approvals processes can be lengthy and human trials are still some time away. Despite this, the breakthrough has enormous potential.

The impact of this discovery is twofold. Providing a treatment for cachexia will help thousands of cancer sufferers. In addition to this, this discovery may have potential to help fight cancer directly. In some cases, treatment with the ‘antibody’ therapy that blocked the cachexia also slowed the growth of the tumours.

Hope for the future

In 2012, the World Health Organisation reported that cancers ‘figure among the leading causes of morbidity and mortality worldwide, with approximately 14 million new cases and 8.2 million cancer related deaths.”

Given that up to 80 per cent of cancer patients will suffer from cachexia, and that cachexia is responsible for 30 per cent of cancer related deaths, this breakthrough is a significant cause for hope. An effective treatment for cachexia would give cancer patients the opportunity to spend more time with loved ones and to improve the dignity of those in palliative care.


Would you like to be part of the exciting research being done at LIMS? Get in contact.


This blog was written with the assistance of Dr Amelia Johnston and Giselle Roberts.


2 thoughts on “Breakthrough research from LIMS could improve the lives of cancer sufferers”

    1. Hi Neil,

      Agreed. I think the most exciting thing for me when I found out about this research is that it has the potential to improve those last years/months/weeks with a loved one, and that is so important.

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