Cancer-associated cachexia is a disorder characterized by loss of body weight with specific losses of skeletal muscle and adipose tissue. Cachexia is driven by a variable combination of reduced food intake and metabolic changes, including elevated energy expenditure, excess catabolism and inflammation. Cachexia is highly associated with cancers of the pancreas, oesophagus, stomach, lung, liver and bowel; this group of malignancies is responsible for half of all cancer deaths worldwide. Cachexia involves diverse mediators derived from the cancer cells and cells within the tumour microenvironment, including inflammatory and immune cells. In addition, endocrine, metabolic and central nervous system perturbations combine with these mediators to elicit catabolic changes in skeletal and cardiac muscle and adipose tissue. At the tissue level, mechanisms include activation of inflammation, proteolysis, autophagy and lipolysis. Cachexia associates with a multitude of morbidities encompassing functional, metabolic and immune disorders as well as aggravated toxicity and complications of cancer therapy. Patients experience impaired quality of life, reduced physical, emotional and social well-being and increased use of healthcare resources. To date, no effective medical intervention completely reverses cachexia and there are no approved drug therapies. Adequate nutritional support remains a mainstay of cachexia therapy, whereas drugs that target overactivation of catabolic processes, cell injury and inflammation are currently under investigation.
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