New cancer-fighting drugs come along pretty regularly, and some show more promise than others, but a new class of treatments is getting a boost in effectiveness from a somewhat unlikely source: a low-carb diet.

A ketogenic diet (often called just “keto” by proponents) promotes the consumption of fats while shunning carbs as much as possible. Now, a synergy between keto and a new class of drugs has been demonstrated, and it might offer renewed hope for those fighting certain types of cancer.

The drugs in question work by targeting the PI3K enzyme which has been linked to cancer mutations. The drugs showed promise early on but have fallen short of lofty expectations, and now scientists think that combining the drugs with a ketogenic diet might be the real answer.

“Any drug that targets PI3K may not be effective unless patients can maintain low blood sugar levels through diet or medication,” Lewis C. Cantley, Ph.D, lead author of the study, said in a statement. “We demonstrated that if we keep insulin down with the ketogenic diet, it dramatically improves the effectiveness of these cancer drugs.”

The scientists believe this is the case because of how PI3K affects insulin production. By muting the function of PI3K, the tumors should begin to die, but things haven’t worked out that way. Doctors now believe this is because pancreas is playing catch-up with blood sugar levels, boosting insulin levels and essentially cancelling out the effect of the drug.

By dramatically reducing or outright eliminating carbohydrates, a keto diet commands the body to begin using fats as fuel, stabilizing blood sugar levels and giving the drug a chance to do its job. This approach has proven to be extremely effective in lab trials with mice.

“The ketogenic diet turned out to be the perfect approach,” Benjamin D. Hopkins of Cornell explains. “It reduced glycogen stores, so the mice couldn’t release glucose in response to PI3K inhibition. This suggests that if you can block spikes in glucose and the subsequent insulin feedback, you can make the drugs much more effective at controlling cancer growth.”

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