Ketogenic diets (KD) are high in fat and low in carbohydrates, forcing cells to utilize mitochondrial fatty acid oxidation for energy production. Since cancer cells demonstrate increased mitochondrial oxidative stress relative to normal cells, we hypothesized that a KD may selectively enhance metabolic oxidative stress in head and neck cancer cells, sensitizing them to radiation and platinum-based chemotherapy without causing increased toxicity in surrounding normal tissues. This hypothesis was tested in preclinical murine xenografts and in a phase 1 clinical trial (NCT01975766). In this study, mice bearing human head and neck cancer xenografts (FaDu) were fed either standard mouse chow or KetoCal® KD (90% fat, 8% carbohydrate, 2% protein) and exposed to ionizing radiation. Tumors were harvested from mice to test for glutathione, a biomarker of oxidative stress. In parallel, patients with locally advanced head and neck cancer were enrolled in a phase 1 clinical trial where they consumed KD and received radiation with concurrent platinum-based chemotherapy. Subjects consumed KetoCal KD via percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy (PEG) tube and were also allowed to orally consume water, sugar-free drinks, and foods approved by a dietitian. Oxidative stress markers including protein carbonyls and total glutathione were assessed in patient blood samples both pre-KD and while consuming the KD. Mice bearing FaDu xenografts that received radiation and KD demonstrated a slight improvement in tumor growth rate and survival compared to mice that received radiation alone; however a variation in responses was seen dependent on the fatty acid composition of the diet. In the phase 1 clinical trial, a total of twelve patients were enrolled in the study. Four patients completed five weeks of the KD as per protocol (with variance in compliance). Eight patients did not tolerate the diet with concurrent radiation and platinum-chemotherapy (5 were patient decision and 3 were removed from study due to toxicity). The median number of days consuming a KD in patients who did not complete the study was 5.5 (range: 2–8 days). Reasons for discontinuation included “stress of diet compliance” (1 patient), grade 2 nausea (3 patients), and grade 3 fatigue (1 patient). Three patients were removed from the trial due to dose-limiting toxicities including: grade 4 hyperuricemia (2 patients) and grade 3 acute pancreatitis (1 patient). Median weight loss was 2.95% for the KD-tolerant group and 7.92% for patients who did not tolerate the diet. In conclusion, the ketogenic diet shows promise as a treatment combined with radiation in preclinical mouse head and neck cancer xenografts. A phase 1 clinical trial evaluating the safety and tolerability of KD demonstrated difficulty with diet compliance when combined with standard-of-care radiation therapy and cisplatin chemotherapy.

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