Can heat cure cancer?

Dear Cecil:

If cancer cells are killed at 107 degrees, why don't MDs simply create a fever of 108 degrees in the body instead of pushing chemo and radiation therapy, which create further medical problems?

Cecil replies:

Dear Kris:

You’re not the first person to think of this. Hyperthermia, as it’s called, is one of the oldest medical treatments in the book. Prior to the invention of antibiotics it was the standard therapy for syphilis and many other infections. One obvious drawback: a fever of 108 degrees would not only kill the cancer, it’d stand a good chance of killing the patient. That detail aside, the basic idea is sound. Lab experiments have shown that heating cancer cells to 42 degrees Celsius (107.6 Fahrenheit) kills them and in addition enhances the effectiveness of chemo and radiation.

The question is how to heat the cancer while sparing healthy tissue. In recent years cancer researchers have sought ways to focus the heat on the tumor, using techniques such as hot air, ultrasound, high-temperature water, microwave radiation, needles inserted in the body, etc. None has proved entirely satisfactory. Perhaps for that reason a 1991 review by U.S. health officials found no evidence that hyperthermia, either alone or in conjunction with chemotherapy, was a useful cancer treatment except in limited circumstances. Subsequent research has been more encouraging, and many believe hyperthermia will yet find its place in the anticancer toolbox. At any rate it’s now fairly widely available.

Hyperthermia has also been used by some doctors in Europe to treat AIDS. In a controversial technique called extracorporeal hyperthermia, the blood is pumped out of the patient’s body, heated to 108 degrees or more, then put back in the body while still hot. A person with AIDS named Chuck DeMarco tried the technique in 1991 and claims it reversed his symptoms. He’s since become a big promoter of the therapy. But his lover Michael Vernaglia, who also had AIDS, died in 1991 despite having twice received the same treatment. Extracorporeal hyperthermia has many side effects, some potentially fatal, and is banned in the U.S. One study found no difference in case outcome between AIDS patients who were given hyperthermia therapy and those who weren’t. What’s more, one person who got the treatment went into a coma and died a month later. The skeptics aren’t surprised by the lack of results, pointing out that the blood carries only a small fraction of the AIDS virus in a patient’s body. Hyperthermia advocates haven’t conceded defeat, but I wouldn’t get my hopes up.

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.

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