Cancer patients who lose weight fare worse than those who don’t, but up to now, weight loss has been thought a normal byproduct of the disease.

New research at Duke Medical Center (DMC) suggests that enhancing the taste and smell of the food cancer patients eat may help them retain an appetite and some pounds, thus improving their response to treatment.

DMC researchers Jennifer Garst, MD, Susan Schiffman, Jennifer Zervakis, and Lara Campagna, each a Ph.D., presented early pilot study findings at the annual Association of Chemoreception Sciences on Thursday. Results of a current study are expected in two weeks.

Garst, assistant professor of oncology at the Duke Comprehensive Cancer Center, tells Local Tech Wire that chemotherapy drugs are known to alter taste and smell. She says cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy complain their food tastes metallic. But cancer itself may affect both taste and appetite, she adds.

In a small ongoing study of 33 lung cancer patients at DMC, the researchers have found that patients who reported the lowest degree of taste and smell ability also experienced the most weight loss and nutritional deficits.

“In lung cancer, it’s a particularly bad sign,” says Garst. “So, we said let’s look at taste and see how many people are having problems and then, is there some sort of intervention we can do?”

To test whether flavor enhancers might work, as they did for Schiffman’s elderly patients, the researchers are conducting the current study.

Half the patients in the study enjoy powered flavor enhancers that strengthen the taste and smell of their foods. The other half do not.

The researchers think that those getting the flavor enhancers will lose less weight and show higher immune status at their eight month check-up.

“It’s very novel research,” says Garst. “It’s an area of supportive care that’s often brushed off. Physicians say, ‘It’s a just a side-effect of treatment,’ and even patients expect to be sick.”

Later, the researchers plan to test other types of interventions, such as appetite stimulants, in addition to flavor enhancers, Garst says.

“It’s a quality of life, not just a survival issue for cancer patients,” she says.