Putting the heat on cancer
Hyperthermia—the use of heat to cure disease—dates back to the early Egyptians and Greeks.
Today, this ancient therapy is helping save lives by boosting the effectiveness of modern cancer treatments.
“Although heat can damage or kill some cancer cells directly, it’s almost always used in conjunction with radiation or chemotherapy,” explains Nisar Syed, M.D., medical director of radiation oncology at the Todd Cancer Institute at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center. “Raising the temperature of a tumor by a few degrees enhances the effects of other treatments.”
Hyperthermia can be used before or after radiation therapy to open blood vessels and increase the flow of blood and oxygen to tumors. The mix of oxygen and radiation creates free radicals that attack cancer cell DNA. Hyperthermia also helps destroy cancer cells that have become resistant to radiation by speeding up cell metabolism.
When used with chemotherapy, hyperthermia increases the concentration of anti-cancer drugs in tumors and may make the drugs themselves more effective.
Dr. Syed, an internationally recognized expert on hyperthermia, has treated thousands of patients with a combination of heat and radiation. “Results are excellent, especially in patients who don’t respond to conventional treatment or have recurrent breast, head or neck cancers. Prostate and cervical cancers are also successfully treated with hyperthermia and high-dose brachytherapy—a type of radiation therapy in which radioactive seeds are placed inside the body.”
Going Even Deeper
Until recently, hyperthermia could only treat tumors on or just below the surface of the skin. But in January 2009, the Todd Cancer Institute became one of just three U.S. medical centers to acquire the BSD 2000, a machine that delivers heat to cancers located deep inside the body. “The Todd Cancer Institute pioneered the use of superficial hyperthermia 22 years ago,” says Ajmel Puthawala, M.D., associate director of radiation oncology at the Todd Cancer Institute. “Deep hyperthermia is the next groundbreaking step.” The BSD 2000 generates heat using radiofrequency energy—a type of electromagnetic radiation. The energy is transmitted through a 3-D array of 24 antennas driven by 12 radiofrequency power channels. Each channel can be adjusted so the power conforms to the exact size and contour of the tumor. State-of-the-art computer software helps determine the appropriate settings for each patient.
Comfortable and Safe
During treatment, the patient lies inside an eye-shaped device called an applicator. As the tumor is heated to 108 to 110 degrees—a little warmer than the average hot tub—a water-filled bolus cools the skin. “The bolus helps patients stay comfortable,” Dr. Puthawala says. “But the heat is delivered with such unparalleled accuracy that there is little risk to healthy tissue.” Therapy with the BSD 2000 usually consists of two hyperthermia treatments, plus five sessions of external beam radiation every week for five weeks. Each hyperthermia treatment lasts about one hour.
Deep hyperthermia is currently investigational in the United States and can only be given under an FDA-approved clinical trial for the treatment of locally advanced or recurrent deep pelvic cancers. So far, three patients have been treated under this protocol at the Todd Cancer Institute. Dr. Syed emphasizes that although only select patients currently qualify for deep hyperthermia therapy, thousands more may be helped in the future.
For more information visit Todd Cancer Institute.