Weight-losing patients with advanced cancer often fail to gain weight with conventional nutritional support. This suboptimal response might be explained, in part, by an increased metabolic response to feeding. It has been suggested that eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) can modify beneficially the metabolic response to cancer. The aim of the present study was to examine the metabolic response to feeding in cancer and the effects of an EPA-enriched oral food supplement on this response. A total of 16 weight-losing, non-diabetic patients with unresectable pancreatic adenocarcinoma and six healthy, weight-stable controls were studied by indirect calorimetry in the fasting and fed states. Body composition was estimated by bioimpedence analysis. Cancer patients were then given a fish-oil-enriched nutritional supplement providing 2 g of EPA and 2550 kJ daily, and underwent repeat metabolic study after 3 weeks of such supplementation. At baseline, resting energy expenditure whether expressed per kg body weight, lean body mass or body cell mass was significantly greater in the cancer patients compared with controls. Fat oxidation was significantly higher in the fasting state in cancer patients [median 1.26 g·kg-1·min-1 (interquartile range 0.95–1.38)] than in controls [0.76 g·kg-1·min-1 (0.62–0.92); P < 0.05]. Over the 4 h feeding period, changes in insulin and glucose concentrations in cancer patients suggested relative glucose intolerance. In response to oral meal feeding, the percentage change in the area under the curve of energy expenditure was significantly lower in the cancer patients [median 7.9% (interquartile range 3.4–9.0)] than in controls [12.6% (9.9–15.1); P < 0.01]. After 3 weeks of the EPA-enriched supplement, the body weight of the cancer patients had increased and the energy expenditure in response to feeding had risen significantly [9.6% (6.3–12.4)], such that it was no different from baseline healthy control values. Similarly, fasting fat oxidation fell to 1.02 g·kg-1·min-1 (0.8–1.18), again no longer significantly different from baseline healthy control values. While weight-losing patients with advanced pancreatic cancer have an increased resting energy expenditure and increased fat oxidation, the energy cost of feeding is, in fact, reduced. Provision of a fish-oil-enriched nutritional supplement results in some normalization of the metabolic response in both the fasted and fed states, in association with an improvement in nutritional status.

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