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Clin Endocrinol (Oxf). 2002 Jun;56(6):723-33.

What is the role of the insulin-like growth factor system in the pathophysiology of cancer cachexia, and how is it regulated?

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Department of Medicine, University of Bristol, UK.



The cancer cachexia syndrome is characterized by anorexia, weight loss with muscle wasting and increased energy expenditure. It is associated with increased morbidity and mortality, but its aetiology is poorly understood and no effective therapeutic intervention is available. It may result from an imbalance between the activity or effect of anabolic and catabolic hormones, mediated by the inflammatory cytokines. IGF-I is a potent anabolic agent, with therapeutic potential. Our objective was to investigate the role and regulation of the IGF system in cancer cachexia.


We set up a prospective study of 30 patients with newly diagnosed unresectable non-small cell lung cancer, together with a cross-sectional comparison group of healthy volunteers.


We examined the relationship between aspects of the IGF system, including IGFBP-3 proteolysis (using Western ligand and immunoblotting and an in vitro IGFBP-3 protease assay); the inflammatory cytokines and their soluble receptors; and food intake and nutritional status (including biochemical and anthropometric assessments).


Although we did not observe a marked reduction in food intake in the cancer patients, the majority lost weight and functionally important lean body mass. We observed GH resistance in the cancer patients, and intermittent proteolysis of IGFBP-3, which correlated with the circulating interleukin-6 (IL-6) concentration. The pattern of IGFBP-3 proteolysis was unusual, with a prominent 17-kDa fragment. Less IGFBP-3 proteolysis was associated with more weight loss, suggesting that this could be a protective counter-regulatory mechanism, increasing IGF-I bioavailability to the tissues.


Cancer cachexia in humans is a complex condition. Patients tend to be GH resistant. The significance of the intermittent increases in IGFBP-3 proteolysis, which may be regulated by IL-6, remains uncertain. A better understanding of the pathophysiology should enable the development of novel therapeutic approaches.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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