Hyperthermia therapy is a type of medical treatment in which body tissue is exposed to slightly higher temperatures to damage and kill cancer cells or to make cancer cells more sensitive to the effects of radiation and certain anti-cancer drugs. When combined with radiation therapy, it is called thermoradiotherapy. Whole-body hyperthermia has also been found to be helpful for depression.
Local hyperthermia has shown to be effective when combined with chemotherapy or radiation therapy for cancers such as breast, cervical, prostate, head and neck, melanoma, soft-tissue sarcoma and rectal cancer, among others. Whole-body hyperthermia is generally considered to be a promising experimental cancer treatment, but requires close medical monitoring of the patient, as side effects can be serious.
Hyperthermia may kill or weaken tumor cells, and is controlled to limit effects on healthy cells. Tumor cells, with a disorganized and compact vascular structure, have difficulty dissipating heat. Hyperthermia may therefore cause cancerous cells to undergo apoptosis in direct response to applied heat, while healthy tissues can more easily maintain a normal temperature.
When combined with radiation, hyperthermia is particularly effective at increasing the damage to acidic, poorly oxygenated parts of a tumor, and cells that are preparing to divide. Hyperthermia treatment is most effective when provided at the same time, or within an hour, of the radiation.
The purpose of overheating the tumor cells is to create a lack of oxygen so that the heated tumor cells become over acidified, which leads to a lack of nutrients in the tumor. This in turn disrupts the metabolism of the cells so that cell death can set in. In certain cases chemotherapy or radiation that has previously not had any effect can be made effective. Because Hyperthermia alters the cell walls by means of so-called heat shock proteins, cancer cells then react very much more effectively to the cytostatics and radiation. If hyperthermia is used conscientiously it has no serious side effects.