Exercise Oncology Research Center at MSK

AKTIV Against Cancer has pledged $3.3 million to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center to fund exercise oncology research via Dr. Lee Jones, PhD.

The funds are allocated as follows:

  • $325,000 - Preclinical Study: Effects of exercise on tumor dormancy using mouse models of breast cancer bone metastases

  • $325,000 - Preclinical Study: Differential effects of exercise across breast cancer clinical subtypes using mouse models of primary breast cancer

  • $650,000 - Preclinical Study: Tumor genomic profiling for prediction of response to exercise in patients with solid tumors. This grant also includes a research scholarship in partner with Norway's Kavli Trust to train the next generation of exercise-oncology scientists in Norway.

  • $2,000,000 - Supports the overall Exercise-Oncology program at MSK, including the establishment of one of the first-ever physical activity centers in the Unites States dedicated to exercise-oncology research.

Over the past 18 years, Dr. Jones has become a leading researcher specializing in the field of exercise-oncology: the study of physical activity and its impact on cancer and cancer treatment. Dr. Jones joined Memorial Sloan Kettering in February 2014, after eight years at Duke University Medical Center. He’s published over 180 scientific articles and provided more than 120 invited lectures at lead scientific conferences in oncology and cardiology.

Dr. Jones has said the opportunity exists to change the landscape of cancer management. He and his team are examining the benefits of physical activity beyond controlling the symptoms and side effects of cancer therapy; they aim to determine whether exercise itself can reduce cancer progression and improve response to anticancer therapy. Furthermore, the team is exploring whether exercise has a positive effect on cancer recurrence and mortality in patients with early breast cancer.

Dr. Jones shares, “We have been conducting research into physical activity during treatment since I began working in this field more than 18 years ago, so our experiential data is starting to mature. Our findings on physical activity and cancer tumors are entirely fresh, and it may well take as long as 15 years to learn how to utilize this knowledge to benefit patients. However, progress is being made.” 

“My aim is to make my job superfluous. Then I’ll retire and play golf,” says Dr. Jones. Through his research, he is urging U.S. health authorities and hospitals to include physical activity in the standard panel of treatment for cancer patients, not only as a means of reducing symptoms and side effects of treatment, but as part of the treatment of tumors.

His latest studies on mice are making significant advancements. Studies are providing groundbreaking results demonstrating physical activity can help reduce tumor growth in breast cancer patients, and it can render tumors more responsive to chemotherapy.

Combining Exercise and Chemotherapy

The research team divided the mice in the study into four groups to test different treatment combinations and their effects. The group receiving no treatment recorded the fastest tumor growth rate. The group receiving only cytotoxic drugs and the group whose sole treatment consisted of physical activity showed approximately the same tumor development and growth; both performed better than the untreated group. The final group, which received cytotoxic drugs in combination with physical activity, recorded the lowest tumor growth rate of all four groups.

These results hold significant promise for many patients. The next steps for Dr. Jones and his team are to determine if the study’s findings are transferable to humans; to identify which types of cancer tumors respond best; and to determine the most effective “dose” of activity for the different tumor types. This will allow precise, personalized treatment plans to be designed for different patient groups. According to Dr. Jones, it should be possible to “prescribe” physical activity.

“We need to treat this as a medicine. Our aim is to identify the effects of physical activity in sufficient detail to allow us to say, ‘The cells of this type of tumor divide in this way.’ Based on that, we can calculate what dose of physical activity a patient needs in combination with the right chemotherapy or radiation treatment.”

Comparing physical activity to traditional medicine is familiar to AKTIV Against Cancer. Grete Waitz, legendary professional marathon runner and AKTIV Against Cancer’s co-founder, used to say, “If physical activity existed in pill form, it would be the most prescribed medicine in the western world.” Waitz continued to exercise during her own cancer treatments.

Pioneering Research

Dr. Jones began studying physical activity and cancer in 1998. At the time, most doctors advised patients to lie down and relax while undergoing treatment. Few recommended physical activity.

“It’s true I started early, but that was largely coincidental. I moved to Canada to write my doctoral thesis and my supervisor had just begun focusing on this field. We agreed we wanted to fill the existing gap, but I had no idea it would grow as big as it has,” says Dr. Jones.

Given recent results, it’s unsurprising research on physical activity and cancer is flourishing in various countries. Norway, AKTIV Against Cancer’s birthplace, had a relatively early start launching related research projects, including several supported by the foundation.

Reducing Chemotherapy Side Effects

In Dr. Jones’ latest study of breast cancer patients, participants in the group receiving medical treatment only, suffered a significant reduction (9%) in their physical condition resulting from their illness and treatment side effects. The second group of patients receiving medical treatment and carefully tailored physical activity plans recorded an entirely different result. These patients improved their physical condition by 12% during the study period despite simultaneously undergoing chemotherapy. Patients in the active group also reported higher quality of life than those receiving medical treatment alone.

“We are now seeing results pointing in the same direction, and although the majority of research has focused on breast and prostate cancer patients, corresponding findings are being made with respect to other types of cancer. For example, considerable research is now being conducted on lung cancer. Physical activity can make a positive contribution during treatment and not least, reduce the risk of post-treatment relapse,” says Dr. Jones.

The funds AKTIV Against Cancer have pledged are extremely important. According to Dr. Jones, “It has been critical for us, actually. The support from AKTIV Against Cancer has allowed us to proceed without waiting for funding through traditional channels, which could easily take up to a year and a half.”