The whey to go: Researchers unlock the potential of whey-derived proteins for cancer prevention

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In a recent review article published in Food and Humanity, researchers summarized the current evidence regarding the significance of whey protein for cancer prevention and treatment.

Their conclusions highlighted the emerging role of whey protein supplements as a cost-effective, practicable, and viable strategy for cancer treatment and prevention.

Study: Emerging potential of whey proteins in prevention of cancer. Image Credit: Dan_photography/Shutterstock.comStudy: Emerging potential of whey proteins in prevention of cancer. Image Credit: Dan_photography/


Cancer is a leading cause of mortality globally, and its prevalence has increased significantly, prompting research to guide the development of effective strategies for treatment and prevention.

Whey protein, known for its nutritional value and popularity in fitness, has recently garnered attention for its potential anticancer properties.

Studies suggest whey protein contains bioactive compounds, such as lactoferrin, which demonstrate anticancer effects by inhibiting cancer cell growth and boosting the immune system.

Whey protein also appears to modulate signaling pathways involved in cancer development, potentially slowing its progression. Additionally, it may enhance the efficacy and reduce the side effects of conventional cancer treatments like chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

While more research is needed to understand the mechanisms underlying the anticancer effects of whey protein, initial findings offer promising avenues for cancer prevention and treatment.

Whey protein and its benefits

Whey protein, formed during milk processing as a by-product, can be sweet or acid. Sweet whey is used widely in supplements, with about 50% of the nutrients found in milk constituting approximately 20% of the protein content of milk.

Whey contains various nutrients, including bioactive peptides, minerals, B-complex vitamins, and growth factors. These bioactive components, such as lactoperoxidase, beta-lactoglobulin, and lactoferrin, demonstrate diverse bioactivities and functionalities.

Whey protein is highly regarded for its role in providing essential amino acids and promoting quick absorption, making it ideal for people with cancer and individuals seeking protein-rich diets.

Commercially, whey protein is available in different forms like whey protein isolates (WPI), whey protein hydrolysates (WPH), and whey protein concentrates (WPC), each with varying protein concentrations.

Whey protein concentrates generally contain between 25% and 89% protein, while isolates contain between 90% and 95%.

Whey protein offers numerous health benefits, including weight loss support, muscle preservation, digestive health promotion, hypertension regulation, and anti-carcinogenic effects.

It has probiotic properties and is a precursor for bioactive compounds like lactulose and lactobionic acid, and exhibits a low glycemic index and cariogenicity compared to other protein sources.

The therapeutic properties of whey protein are attributed to its antioxidant activity, glutathione enhancement, apoptosis induction, iron-binding capacity, cell proliferation regulation, and potential in treating cancer cachexia-anorexia syndrome.

It stimulates glutathione synthesis, promotes apoptosis in cancer cells, and regulates cell growth and division through insulin-like growth factor 1 pathways.

Further research into whey protein and its bioactive components holds promise for enhancing human health and well-being.

In vivo and clinical cancer studies

Animal studies demonstrate that whey protein shows promise against oxidative stress-induced tissue injuries and cancers. Its potential anticancer and antioxidant properties may be associated with its ability to increase glutathione levels.

WPC exhibits advantages over soy, casein, and other proteins in reducing colorectal cancer incidence via glutathione elevation.

Whey protein diets have also shown promise in managing mucositis for individuals undergoing chemotherapy while improving nutritional outcomes.

Subfractions of whey protein, particularly bovine lactoferrin and alpha-lactalbumin, exhibit antitumor effects inhibiting tumor development. Researchers are exploring novel nanocarriers incorporating components of whey protein to prevent tumors without side effects.

Some clinical trials with human participants have shown positive outcomes, which are consistent with the evidence from in vitro studies of whey protein’s antioxidant and anti-cancer.

Regarding nutritional and performance parameters, interventions that combined supplementation with dietary assistance and exercise improved nutritional parameters and handgrip strength; WPI supplementation also showed promise for protein status strengthening, boosting immunity during chemotherapy, and raising glutathione levels.

Studies also indicate both positive and complex effects of whey protein concentrate and lactoferrin supplementation on the health of cancer patients.

While these results are promising, robust multicentric trials must be conducted across various forms of cancer to confirm the pervasive efficacy of whey protein supplementation as an adjuvant therapy.


The narrative review discussed the role of whey protein in cancer prevention and treatment based on both animal and clinical studies, highlighting the potential benefits of whey protein, including its antioxidant and anticancer properties, its ability to increase glutathione levels, and its effectiveness in managing mucositis during chemotherapy.

Various subfractions of whey protein, such as alpha-lactalbumin and lactoferrin, show promising antitumor effects. Additionally, novel approaches like utilizing nanocarriers incorporating whey protein components are being explored for tumor prevention.

Clinical trials suggest positive outcomes of whey protein supplementation, including improved nutritional and performance parameters, raised glutathione levels and strengthened immunity in cancer patients.

However, robust multicentric trials across different cancer types are needed to confirm the widespread efficacy of whey protein supplementation as an adjuvant therapy.

Journal reference:
Priyanjana Pramanik

Written by

Priyanjana Pramanik

Priyanjana Pramanik is a writer based in Kolkata, India, with an academic background in Wildlife Biology and economics. She has experience in teaching, science writing, and mangrove ecology. Priyanjana holds Masters in Wildlife Biology and Conservation (National Centre of Biological Sciences, 2022) and Economics (Tufts University, 2018). In between master's degrees, she was a researcher in the field of public health policy, focusing on improving maternal and child health outcomes in South Asia. She is passionate about science communication and enabling biodiversity to thrive alongside people. The fieldwork for her second master's was in the mangrove forests of Eastern India, where she studied the complex relationships between humans, mangrove fauna, and seedling growth.


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