• Two studies, one conducted at UT Southwestern Cancer Center in Dallas, Texas, and the other at Van Andel Institute in Grand Rapids, Michigan, have found that T-cells, which help fight cancer, viruses, and infections, may use lactate, a by-product of exercise, as nutrition.
  • Although the research needs follow up, the studies point to the idea that exercise may one day be a prescribed addition to treatments for cancer and infections.

Researchers know exercise can help prevent disease, but now they’re studying whether it can also help you recover from illness. In fact, two recent studies—one conducted at UT Southwestern Cancer Center in Dallas, Texas, and the other at Van Andel Institute in Grand Rapids, Michigan—discovered that lactate (a by-product of exercise, often blamed for that burning sensation you feel) may boost T-cells, which play an important role in the immune system.

    Researchers involved in the Van Andel Institute study looked at the response of T-cells to lactate, along with acetate and ketones (other chemicals created in the body). The Texas researchers examined whether lactate could join immunotherapy treatments to fight cancer cells. Both studies found that the lactate produced by exercise could be used as fuel by T-cells.

    T-cells are white blood cells, produced by the thymus gland as part of the immune response to fight pathogens. They can play a number of roles in the body, including killing infected host cells and activating other helpful immune cells.

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    “Every process in our bodies is powered by metabolism, which in turn, is fueled by the nutrients we consume through our diet,” Russell Jones, Ph.D., chair of Van Andel Institute’s Department of Metabolism and Nutritional Programming told Runner’s World. “We found that when T-cells have access to multiple different fuels they work better. More specifically, [we found] that lactate, acetate, and ketones were able to boost the function of T-cells.”

    To come to this conclusion, the researchers of the Van Andel study essentially “offered” T cells a choice between glucose and lactate in a study conducted in vitro. T-cells, which need nutrients to function, chose the lactate as fuel.

    In the Texas study, researchers gave mice with cancer tumors lactate injections, which reduced those tumors. Furthermore, when the lactate was combined with a common immunotherapy treatment, the mice became tumor-free.

    While the two studies and their findings are not the same, they were both surprising and hopeful because previously, lactate was considered a “waste by-product” of intense exercise, causing muscle cramps, but having little other use. Turns out, the lactate is useful to T-cells.

    “Different levels of exercise intensity produce different levels of lactic acid,” Jones explained. “When you’re in an anaerobic mode, you’re using the glucose in your cells as fuel to produce energy quickly. This process also produces lactic acid as a by-product.”

    Chemically, lactate and lactic acid differ only by the presence of one proton (lactate has it), so the terms may be used interchangeably by athletes even though they are different in a lab.

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    It’s important to understand that these findings to do not mean that intense exercise is a cure for illness, nor has the research been done on humans yet. Nevertheless, the findings potentially point to the future and the ways in which exercise may interact with immunotherapy treatments that are designed to treat cancer and other serious illness.

    “Using exercise as a recovery tool is all about balance and timing,” Jones said. “When an infection, such as a virus, is raging, you need body conservation, but once your immune system has kicked in and you’ve begun to fight the infection, you can get up and walk around.”

    The recent studies point to the idea that immunotherapy patients will be encouraged to make lifestyle adjustments while undergoing lifesaving treatments. “Five years ago, stage 4 melanoma was a death sentence and now with immunotherapy we can potentially save lives,” Jones said. “Optimal T-cell function drives these recoveries. The big question is: How can we combine pharmacology with diet and exercise to save more lives?”

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