Skeletal muscle mitochondrial dysfunction and muscle and whole body functional deficits in cancer patients with weight loss

Hawley E. Kunz, John D. Port, Kenton R. Kaufman, Aminah Jatoi, Corey R. Hart, Kevin J. Gries, Ian R. Lanza, Rajiv Kumar

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Reductions in skeletal muscle mass and function are often reported in patients with cancer-associated weight loss and are associated with reduced quality of life, impaired treatment tolerance, and increased mortality. Although cellular changes, including altered mitochondrial function, have been reported in animals, such changes have been incompletely characterized in humans with cancer. Whole body and skeletal muscle physical function, skeletal muscle mitochondrial function, and whole body protein turnover were assessed in eight patients with cancer-associated weight loss (10.1 ± 4.2% body weight over 6–12 mo) and 19 age-, sex-, and body mass index (BMI)-matched healthy controls to characterize skeletal muscle changes at the whole body, muscle, and cellular level. Potential pathways involved in cancer-induced alterations in metabolism and mitochondrial function were explored by interrogating skeletal muscle and plasma metabolomes. Despite similar lean mass compared with control participants, patients with cancer exhibited reduced habitual physical activity (57% fewer daily steps), cardiorespiratory fitness [22% lower V_ O2peak (mL/kg/min)] and leg strength (35% lower isokinetic knee extensor strength), and greater leg neuromuscular fatigue (36% greater decline in knee extensor torque). Concomitant with these functional declines, patients with cancer had lower mitochondrial oxidative capacity [25% lower State 3 O2 flux (pmol/s/mg tissue)] and ATP production [23% lower State 3 ATP production (pmol/s/ mg tissue)] and alterations in phospholipid metabolite profiles indicative of mitochondrial abnormalities. Whole body protein turnover was unchanged. These findings demonstrate mitochondrial abnormalities concomitant with whole body and skeletal muscle functional derangements associated with human cancer, supporting future work studying the role of mitochondria in the muscle deficits associated with cancer. NEW & NOTEWORTHY To our knowledge, this is the first study to suggest that skeletal muscle mitochondrial deficits are associated with cancer-associated weight loss in humans. Mitochondrial deficits were concurrent with reductions in whole body and skeletal muscle functional capacity. Whether mitochondrial deficits are causal or secondary to cancer-associated weight loss and functional deficits remains to be determined, but this study supports further exploration of mitochondria as a driver of cancer-associated losses in muscle mass and function.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)388-401
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of applied physiology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2022


  • Cancer-associated weight loss
  • Mitochondria
  • Muscle strength
  • Physical activity
  • Skeletal muscle

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physiology
  • Physiology (medical)


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