A study has found that a low-calorie diet and a moderate exercise program can dramatically improve the survival outcomes for children and adolescents diagnosed with the most common childhood cancer — acute lymphoblastic leukemia, researchers from UCLA and Children’s Hospital Los Angeles announced Thursday.

Researchers said they found that patients who reduced their calorie intake by 10% or more and adopted a moderate exercise program immediately after their diagnosis had, on average, 70% less chance of having lingering leukemia cells after a month of chemotherapy than those not on the diet-and-exercise regimen.

“We tested a very mild diet because this was our first time trying it, and the first month of treatment is already so difficult for patients and families,” said the study’s senior author, Dr. Steven Mittelman, chief of pediatric endocrinology at UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital and a member of the UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center. “But even with these mild changes in diet and exercise, the intervention was extremely effective in reducing the chance of having detectable leukemia in the bone marrow.”

Mittleman said researchers hoped that the intervention would improve outcomes, but had no idea it would be so effective.

“We can’t really add more toxic chemotherapies to the intense initial treatment phase, but this is an intervention that likely has no negative side effects. In fact, we hope it may even reduce toxicities caused by chemotherapy,” he said.

In a clinical trial at CHLA, researchers worked with registered dieticians and physical therapists to create personalized 28-day interventions for 40 young people between the ages of 10 and 21 who were newly diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

The interventions were designed to cut participants’ calorie intake by a minimum of 10% to reduce both fat gain and lean muscle loss, while the physical activity component included a target level of 200 minutes per week of moderate exercise.

It marked the first trial to test a diet-and-exercise intervention to improve treatment outcomes from a childhood cancer, according to principal investigator and lead author Dr. Etan Orgel, director of the Medical Supportive Care Service in the Cancer and Blood Disease Institute at CHLA, who called it “an exciting proof-of-concept, which may have great implications for other cancers, as well.”

The approach is to be tested next in a multi-center randomized trial to be launched later this year, researchers said.

The study’s other authors included Jiyoon Kim and Gang Li of UCLA; Celia Framson, Rubi Buxton, David Freyer and Matthew Oberley of CHLA, Weili Sun of City of Hope, Jonathan Tucci of Vanderbilt University Medical Center and Christina Dieli-Conwright of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.

The study’s results were published in the American Society of Hematology’s journal Blood Advances.

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