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Starving Cancer Cells to Death

Novel therapeutic approaches may often require quite a bit of lateral thinking, as researchers at the Salk Institute have recently shown in a study presenting a novel method to interfere with cancer growth.

The problem with cancer

In a nutshell, the reason cancer is such an insidious enemy is that its cells divide uncontrollably, leading to the formation of tumors that keep growing, impair bodily functions, and in a worst-case scenario, metastasize—they spread from their original site, wreaking havoc around the body.

Thus, methods to directly prevent cancer cell division have long been a major research target worldwide. Salk researchers, however, decided to try to intervene a little earlier in the chain of events, messing with cancerous cells’ growth rather than division. To do so, they interfered with cancer’s ability to evade the constraints imposed by the circadian cycle.

What is the circadian cycle?

You can think of the circadian cycle as a sort of internal clock of your body that regulates many different mechanisms. The cycle starts over about every 24 hours (hence the term “circadian”, coming from Latin circa “about” and dies “day”), and among its many functions, it tells cells when they’re supposed to produce and consume nutrients. Healthy cells are normally allowed to do so for about 12 hours a day, in order to prevent them from being overwhelmed by a flood of excessive nutrients.

When cell mealtime is over, levels of the REV-ERB protein rise, which inhibits the cell’s ability to synthesize fats and shuts down autophagy—the cell’s ability to recycle materials, which has implications for longevity and atherosclerosis, for example. When REV-ERB levels go down again, cells resume fat production and start breaking down useless cellular components.

Cancer’s deep appetite

Obviously, in order to keep dividing indefinitely, cancer cells cannot afford the periodic fasting imposed by the circadian rhythm; before they can divide, they need to grow, and in order to grow, they need nutrients. Therefore, furiously paced division requires furiously paced nutrient intake. Hence, all cancers evolve strategies to get around the circadian limitation.

Cancer cells do contain the REV-ERB protein that switches nutrient consumption on and off, but their relevant machinery stays inactive, which allows them to feast all the time and thus grow quickly. This is where Salk researchers intervened.

The team, led by Professor Satchidananda Panda, used two known REV-ERB activators on several different types of cancer cells, including the ill-famed glioblastoma, an extremely dangerous brain cancer. In all cases, the cancer cells, deprived of nutrients, ended up starving to death, whereas healthy cells, which normally undergo this periodic fasting, were unaffected. Tested in a mouse model of glioblastoma, the treatment successfully eliminated cancer cells while seemingly leaving healthy ones alone.


This study may hold the promise of novel anticancer approaches with minimal side effects, if any. However, in order to assess this, follow-up studies will be required to make sure of how exactly REV-ERB activators affect metabolism, particularly the metabolism of the gut microbiome. It should also be noted that this is only one of many possible methods to control cancerous cells’ growth and thus interfere with their ability to proliferate. However, we will follow the development of this research with great interest.


[1] Sulli, G., Rommel, A., Wang, X., Kolar, M. J., Puca, F., Saghatelian, A., … & Panda, S. (2018). Pharmacological activation of REV-ERBs is lethal in cancer and oncogene-induced senescence. Nature.

About the author

Nicola Bagalà

Nicola is a bit of a jack of all trades—a holder of an M.Sc. in mathematics; an amateur programmer; a hobbyist at novel writing, piano and art; and, of course, a passionate life extensionist. Nicola produced the YouTube show - LifeXtenShow until 2021. He is no longer part of the team having left in 2021 to seek new opportunities and challenges.
  1. vvenomm
    January 22, 2018

    Wow. Please keep informing and updating us on this topic. This is really interesting!

  2. November 18, 2018

    Intuitively, I have fasted for one day ( start at sunset, and resume eating next day at sunset. This includes no liquids, just complete fast. It is my suspicion that degenerating cells or cancer cells, require more nutrients in order to keep them alive, taxing the rest of the organism, so starving them, rids the body of these cells, making the organism thrive. I observe this in plants. Prune the dying branches, and the tree thrives. Ramadan has been going on for thousands of years, and no one dies, so it proves it is safe, and in this study, actually proves it is therapeutic. Of course, if one is fasting, best not exert one’s body so it is not to stressful .
    Key to have better health is to eat a while plant, non processed diet. It also will decrease global warming p to 0% o CO2 according to the National Academy of sciences. It will prevent and ever reverse the following: cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes immune and Alzheimer’ See FORKS OVER KNIVES from N academy of sciences Campbell..

  3. May 12, 2019

    Very Interesting!

  4. August 28, 2019

    Thanks Dr. Kaplan, that is very interesting. I believe my body is trying to do this as well. Just a mystery. But I suspect it’s pretty bad. Unfortunately time will just have to tell because no doctors can yet! Thank you again.

  5. October 15, 2019

    This is the reason why in Indian it was recommended to do fasting for 1 full day each week. We know this since generations.

  6. itexpertfiverr
    November 5, 2020

    Oncogenic mutations limit the metabolic choices a tumor cell can make, leaving cancer cells at a disadvantage when nutrients become scarce.

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