Cancer patients' loss of taste, smell compromises treatment

with taste and smell distortions may avoid foods with high nutritional value, such as fresh fruits and vegetables. Eliminating such nutritious foods can further depress immune function, said Schiffman.

The causes of appetite and taste loss are many, said Garst. Chemotherapy drugs are known to alter taste and smell by blunting the normal turnover rate of taste and smell receptors on the tongue and in the nasal passages. Radiation treatments can also damage taste and smell receptors, giving food a metallic flavor. Tumors themselves also secrete a protein that suppresses appetite in some patients.

While certain drugs can improve appetite and taste sensation, some of them like steroids carry their own risks and unwanted side effects. The Duke study was designed to measure the impact of taste and smell deficits on patients, and then to investigate a non-drug alternative for making food more appealing.

In the study of 33 lung cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, the Duke researchers assessed the patients' own perceptions of their taste and smell deficits, then scored their ability to detect and recognize odors and flavors presented to them in a laboratory. Patients who reported the lowest degree of taste and smell ability, and who scored the lowest on the psychophysical measurements, also experienced the most weight loss, body-mass loss and nutritional deficits.

Half the patients were then given powdered flavor enhancers extracts of natural foods combined with amino acids -- that strengthen the smell and taste of foods. The other half of patients received no enhancers. All patients received nutritional advice and worksheets explaining what foods help alleviate dry mouth, constipation, diarrhea and other side effects of treatments.

Zervakis said their hypothesis is that patients who receive the flavor enhancers will lose less weight and will show higher immune status at their eight-month checkup than patients who do not receive the

Contact: Becky Levine
Duke University Medical Center

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