Merck, Celgene go beyond the pill with Savor's cancer nutrition programs

Savor Health cancer nutritionists work with pharma companies like Merck and Celgene to develop customized plans for cancer patients.

What should you eat when you have cancer? It’s a common query from some 85% of patients who want to know whether food can lessen side effects or boost their immune systems.

Enter Savor Health. The cancer nutrition company works with pharma companies to answer just that question, with beyond-the-pill programs that augment their drug therapies.

Celgene teamed with Savor on its “Cooking. Comfort. Care.” program for pancreatic cancer patients launched several years ago, while Merck recently tapped Savor as part of its new head and neck disease awareness campaign fronted by former quarterback and cancer survivor Jim Kelly.

As drug costs rise and outcomes-based payer deals multiply, drugmakers are going beyond the pill with programs designed to help patients stay on their meds and get the biggest benefits from them. In this case, the aim is helping patients and caregivers on their journey through cancer treatment, as comfortably and successfully as possible.

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"Both Merck and Celgene came to us as cancer nutrition experts and said, 'We’re building programs for specific populations, can you help us?'” Susan Bratton, co-founder and CEO of Savor Health, said in an interview. Savor works with several other pharma companies, but they didn't want to be identified.

Bratton started the company after a close friend found out he had brain cancer. When he asked his treatment team what he should eat, they told him to eat anything he wanted.

That didn’t sound right to Bratton—then a Wall Street banker in healthcare—and she decided to research the subject herself. Over several years of digging, she found that nutrition does indeed matter for cancer patients. When nutritional issues are addressed, clinical and quality-of-life outcomes improve, mortality and morbidity rates improve and healthcare spending decreases, she says.

That's quite a statement. But Bratton points to research that concluded “nutritional care should be integrated into the global oncology care because of its significant contribution to quality of life,” and “within categories of anatomic involvement, weight loss was associated with decreased median survival.”

She also notes specific side effects of cancer treatments and nutrition answers. Nausea and vomiting can be addressed by eating small meals more frequently, avoiding greasy or spicy foods, eating dry foods like crackers or toast and trying recipes with ginger. Treatment side effects of diarrhea and potential dehydration can be lessened by drinking 8 to 10 glasses of clear fluids, eating foods rich in potassium or high in pectin and soluble fiber.

While Savor caters mostly to pharma companies, it does work directly with consumers through a specialty meal delivery service and nutritional counseling. About 40% of its referrals come through oncology nurses, Bratton said. Being on the front lines with nurses and patients helps the pharma side of the business, Bratton said, because Savor directly gathers the personal views of patients and caregivers, which can then be applied when developing pharma-sponsored programs.

Savor Health’s focus is on cancer now, but the long-term goal is to expand to other diseases “like cardiology or diabetes where nutrition is a big driver of outcome and cost,” Bratton said.

Editor's Note: This story was updated to include additional information about specific nutrition research from Savor Health.