When you’re ill, your body springs into action. The natural healing process involves your immune system rapidly defending itself against bacteria, which causes areas to be red and swollen. That’s inflammation. Properly regulated inflammation is critical for normal, healthy immune responses and is typically a beneficial bodily process. 

There are circumstances, however, where inflammation can last longer than it is supposed to. This chronic, low-level inflammation contributes to muscle dissipation and poses risks of cancer, diabetes and heart disease. 

In fact, cancer and diabetes may not even be the toughest opponent when it comes to the risk of inflammation. When muscle loss happens dramatically, conditions like cachexia and sarcopenia can actually be what takes a person’s life. 

”Cachexia is a common comorbidity with cancer that further complicates a patients' condition. It is not merely another consequence of cancer– cachexia itself presents additional problems. If we can limit muscle loss due to cancer it may extend people’s life and improve their treatment outcomes. That can go hand in hand with improving patient survival,” College of Education & Human Sciences (COEHS) Exercise Science Assistant Professor Michael Deyhle said. 

Deyhle and Ph.D. student Jeremy Ducharme are taking this dangerous cause and effect back three steps to fight the initial cause: inflammation. 

“What is clear is that chronic low level inflammation can contribute to a lot of problems in the body that includes skeletal-muscle wasting that can lead to accelerated muscle loss,” Deyhle said.  

They believe exercise can help prevent inflammation and thereby, these conditions like cachexia which can affect 80% of cancer patients. It is also the cause of death of up to 30% of these same patients. 

”I want to understand what are the cellular and molecular mechanisms that lead to muscle wasting in those conditions,” Deyhle said. “Our research is showing that exercise could help reduce the inflammation we see in these conditions associated with muscle wasting and benefit people in that way.”   

This research is underway thanks to a $10,000 from UNM’s Graduate & Professional Student Association (GPSA) and the Rocky Mountain chapter of the American College of Sports Medicine.  

Participants are male between the ages of 18 and 45, and are divided into groups of both low fitness and active fitness levels.  

“If it goes the way we expect, the people who are more fit will have a reduced inflammatory response after the bout of exercise,” he said. “Just understanding the mechanisms of it can lead to the improved information that we need.”  

Following a blood test and muscle biopsy, participants undergo an intense bout of aerobic exercise on a stationary bike for a full hour in the UNM Exercise Lab in the basement of the Johnson Center. 

Afterwards, there is another round of tests and biopsies. This research is being done with human participants to build on and their earlier research that was done using cell culture. The preliminary cell culture studies revealed some novel and exciting information that skeletal muscle cells themselves may release powerful anti-inflammatory molecules after exercise that could help mitigate inflammation.  

“We were able to see that skeletal muscle actively  resulted in anti-inflammatory effects. Something right there in the muscle doing some contractions results in some anti-inflammatory effects which we also see are anti-catabolic, meaning muscle wasting,” Deyhle said. 

This work being done is a small, but critical piece in the puzzle of cutting down chronic inflammation, and thereby, disease and mortality risk. 

“As involved as this study is, it's really one little step in the process,” he said. “If we can figure out some of the molecular mechanisms, what exactly is going on that explains the benefit of exercise for cancer and muscle, then we’d be armed with another piece of information.” 

Recruitment is still open. Deyhle hopes to complete the study by the end of January, and start data analysis in the spring. Any man interested in this study can reach out to  Jeremy Deyhle or Jeremy Ducharme. 

 Find out more about how the Department of Health, Exercise & Sports Sciences is researching ways to keep you healthy at the College of Education & Human Sciences.