New method of treating cancer by dietary changes uncovered in mice

‘Tantalising’ new method of treating cancer by removing amino acid found in meat, fish and eggs from patient’s diets is uncovered in mouse study

  • Serine is a protein building block that cancer cells require in extra amounts
  • Lowering levels of the amino acid thus has the potential to inhibit tumour growth
  • Many cancer cells, however, a capable of producing their own serine instead
  • UK experts propose a dual approach, using a drug to stop serine production
  • In a mouse model of bowel cancer, their diet–drug combo slowed tumour growth
  • However, they said, more research is needed before use on human patients 

A diet low in serine, an amino acid in meat, fish and eggs — taken in tandem with drugs to stop its production — may provide a new approach to cancer treatment.

As they grow more aggressively, cancer cells are more dependant on serine — a protein building block — than their healthy peers, suggesting a potential weakness.

Previous studies in mice and human cells indicated that lowering serine levels can slow tumour growth — but many cancer cells are capable of making their own.

In fact, the ‘KRAS mutation’ that allows tumours to produce serine is found in 30 per cent of all patients, and is common in hard-to-treat bowel and pancreatic cancers.

However, UK researchers have shown that, in mice containing a graft of human bowel cancer cells, tumour growth is slowed by low-serine diets and the drug PH755.

They reported that, encouragingly, PH755 induced few side effects in the animals — and the dual-pronged approach may work against a variety of cancers.

However, further work on human cells and safety tests will be needed before this approach to treatment can be recommended for cancer patients.

A diet low in serine, an amino acid in meat, fish and eggs (pictured) — taken in tandem with drugs to stop its production — may provide a new approach to cancer treatment

Prior to testing the dual approach in the mouse models, the team had seen promising results in both cell cultures in the lab and in so-called organoids — 3D tumour models which are designed to mimic the complexity of real organs.

‘The idea of being able to develop dietary interventions, based on the understanding of mechanisms behind how changes in nutrients affect tumours, has the potential to unlock a powerful way to treat cancer,’ said cancer biologist Karen Vousden.

‘In the future this could provide a basis for developing a precision medicine approach to diet as a cancer therapy, much as we do with targeted drugs,’ the Cancer Research UK chief scientist added.

‘Personalising each individual’s diet to target the nutritional demands of cancer could, alongside other therapies, give people the best opportunity to respond to treatment.’

‘While it’s encouraging to see the potential of targeting cancer’s nutritional demands to help treat the disease, it’s important to remember that this is early research in mice and cells,’ said Cancer Research UK’s head information nurse Martin Ledwick.

‘People with cancer shouldn’t change their diets in light of this,’ he cautioned.

‘We need to see if this work translates into cancer in humans before testing to see if diet changes are helpful.’

‘Understanding the fundamental biology of cancer through studies like this is vital for revealing the true complexity of the disease, and can shed light on new treatment avenues,’ said Cancer Research UK chief executive Michelle Mitchell.

‘This research has given us a tantalising glimpse into how we can turn cancer’s dietary dependencies against it, and we look forward to seeing if the approach works in people.’

The full findings of the study were published in the journal Nature Communications.


Bowel, or colorectal, cancer affects the large bowel, which is made up of the colon and rectum.

Such tumours usually develop from pre-cancerous growths, called polyps.

Symptoms include:

  • Bleeding from the bottom
  • Blood in stools
  • A change in bowel habits lasting at least three weeks
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Extreme, unexplained tiredness
  • Abdominal pain

Most cases have no clear cause, however, people are more at risk if they: 

  • Are over 50
  • Have a family history of the condition
  • Have a personal history of polyps in their bowel
  • Suffer from inflammatory bowel disease, such as Crohn’s disease
  • Lead an unhealthy lifestyle  

Treatment usually involves surgery, and chemo- and radiotherapy.

More than nine out of 10 people with stage one bowel cancer survive five years or more after their diagnosis.

This drops significantly if it is diagnosed in later stages. 

According to Bowel Cancer UK figures, more than 41,200 people are diagnosed with bowel cancer every year in the UK. 

It affects around 40 per 100,000 adults per year in the US, according to the National Cancer Institute.

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