Professors’ research shows moderate exercise may help cancer treatments

Brad Behnke, associate professor of exercise physiology at K-State, and collaborators have shown that moderate exercise on a regular basis may enhance tumor oxygenation and improve treatments in cancer patients. (Photo Courtesy of K-State Division of News and Communications Services)

Two K-State professors’ research has shown that moderate exercise can increase the effectiveness of cancer treatments.

One of the professors, Brad Behnke, associate professor of exercise physiology, said the main focus of his research is how exercise can increase oxygenation to a tumor to permanently alter its environment.

“We’re taking advantage of the body itself and the systems in the body,” Behnke said. “Basically personalizing different types of exercise prescriptions to try to manipulate the cardiovascular system.”

Moderate exercise can be described as a slow jog or a fast walk, Behnke said. His research could indicate that this type of physical activity can provide oxygen to the tumor, increasing the effectiveness of radiation or chemotherapy treatments.

David Poole, collaborator and professor of exercise physiology, said tumors maintain low oxygen pressures that oscillate.

Although depriving a tumor of oxygen may sound like a good thing, this “turns on a spectrum of over 35 tumor-growth genes that increase tumor size,” Poole said.

Additionally, when a tumor has no oxygen or very low levels of oxygen, the tumor cells are more resistant to radiation or chemotherapy than those in a normal oxygen environment, Behnke said.

Behnke has received one of the four Kansas grants from the American Cancer Society to conduct his research, according to the “Current Grants by State” page of the society’s website. He said he also receives support from the Johnson Cancer Research Center.

The National Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society both recommend exercise for cancer patients to fight the side effects of cancer treatments, but Behnke said his research focuses on the lesser-studied subject of how exercise can be personalized to fight the tumor itself

His research aims to establish for cancer patients in the future “which exercise protocol would be best to modify their particular tumor, so kind of a personalized medicine approach, in combination with their specific chemo or radiation therapy,” Behnke said.

He said he is studying different exercise programs on rodents with prostate cancer in attempts to manipulate the tumor oxygenation. His results have shown that with exercise, the oxygen levels in the tumor have been elevated within a week-to-two-week period. This is typically the time frame a patient would go through radiation therapy for prostate or breast tumors.

“From the research we’ve seen so far, it’s very promising,” Behnke said. “It’s suggesting, at least with these certain types of exercise regimes that we’re using, we’re permanently altering the tumor.”

Before coming to K-State, Behnke worked in Florida where he studied age-related changes in resistance vessel structure and the function of stored fat and skeletal muscle.

He became interested in his current field of research when he heard a speaker prompt the audience to look around and acknowledge that 1 in 3 females and 1 in 2 males will be diagnosed with cancer.

“I’ve always looked at cardiovascular function and just been interested with how rapidly it can adapt,” Behnke said. “I was really interested in how can we impact the survivability of these cancer patients.”

Several of Behnke’s collaborators are in Florida, but Behnke also works with graduate students at K-State as well.

Expanding these opportunities for student involvement in research is one of K-State’s goals listed in its 2025 plan, according to the “Theme 1: Research, Scholarly and Creative Activities, and Discovery (RSCAD) — Strategic Action Plan” document on the “2025 Visionary Plan” page of K-State’s website.

Sarah Hancock, documentation technical writer for the Office of the Vice President for Research, said the opportunity for students to be involved in research at K-State allows them to learn and experience “cutting edge information.”

Behnke said he does not think there will be a cure to cancer in this generation, but he is optimistic about progressive treatments.

“It’s not a death sentence anymore,” Behnke said.