Ever feel sore after a workout? That discomfort may be a sign of some surprising benefits. According to new research by scientists at NYU Grossman School of Medicine and NYU Langone’s Perlmutter Cancer Center, the same biochemical pathways that help the body respond to muscle damage during exercise may also help shrink tumors in the pancreas and make these cancerous growths more vulnerable to immunotherapy drugs that have traditionally failed to stem the deadly cancer.
In a study published online in Cancer Cell, the researchers found that rodents who performed 30 minutes of aerobic exercise 5 days a week had elevated levels of effector CD8 T cells. These potent mediators of the immune system express a receptor for interleukin-15, a signaling protein typically released by muscles during exercise. When bound to interleukin-15, the study found, these cells triggered a stronger immune attack on tumors in the pancreas.
“We’ve shown for the first time how aerobic exercise affects the immune microenvironment within pancreatic tumors,” says lead author Emma Kurz, MD, PhD, a graduate student at NYU Langone’s Vilcek Institute of Graduate Biomedical Sciences.
A corroborative study in humans confirmed that patients with pancreatic cancer who followed a structured exercise regimen also had elevated levels of effector CD8 T cells in their tumors. These patients were twice as likely to survive over five years than patients with fewer CD8 T cells.
Pancreatic cancer is the third leading cause of cancer death in the United States, and its unique environment makes it largely resistant to immunotherapy drugs that have proven successful in treating other types of cancers.
“Our results show that even mild exercise can profoundly alter the environment in tumors,” says study senior author Dafna Bar-Sagi, PhD, senior vice president, vice dean for science, and chief scientific officer at NYU Langone. “But even for patients that might be too sick to exercise, the science points to a therapeutic option involving the use of interleukin-15 to make immunotherapy medications more effective.”