In April 2021, Princeton became the home of the newest branch of the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research, an international organization focused on studying, treating, and preventing cancer. The Ludwig Princeton Branch is the first to specialize in cancer metabolism, including the role of diet in cancer treatment, an understudied but promising avenue of research.
The branch will focus on three main areas of cancer metabolism research: “dietary strategies to prevent and treat cancer; how bodies inadvertently support tumor growth and metastasis; and the interplay between a patient’s metabolism, gut microbiome, and anticancer immune response,” according to an April 2021 press release. An affiliation with RWJ Barnabas Health and the Rutgers Cancer Institute, as well as the University of Pennsylvania and other leading institutions, will allow the branch to conduct clinical trials.
Princeton chemistry professor Joshua Rabinowitz, the branch’s director, believes that the role of diet in cancer treatment has great potential, but there are several reasons why this area of research has lagged behind others. Chemically, diet is “extraordinarily complicated,” says Rabinowitz, who has spent over a decade investigating cancer metabolism. “It’s complicated to measure what people are eating, it’s complicated to manipulate what people are eating, and there’s an enormous number of chemical constituents.”
A second issue is understanding how diet interacts with cancer: “The pathways between diet and cancer have many possibilities, and we don’t know rigorously what the biochemical connections between diet and cancer outcomes are. We don’t know whether they’re mediated through the primary tumor, or the requirements for an immune response against cancer.” Also, pharmaceutical companies do not typically invest in this type of research, Rabinowitz adds.
There is increasing data about the consequential role of diet in cancer treatment and prevention. According to a paper published by Rabinowitz and collaborators in Med in February, mice with pancreatic cancer that received a ketogenic diet in combination with chemotherapy experienced a lifespan extension that was three times longer than those who received chemotherapy alone. This form of treatment is now in clinical trials.
After a year in operation, Rabinowitz says the research branch has cultivated a range of connections and has funded a diverse group of investigators at Princeton and Rutgers. Future plans include hiring additional faculty members and creating research opportunities for undergraduates.