Heat Therapy Fights Soft-Tissue Tumors

Tumors in soft tissues such as muscle, fat, and
nerves around the joints are much less likely to come back if they are heated
at the time patients receive chemotherapy, a study shows.

There's also a suggestion that patients who receive targeted heat therapy
may live longer, says the study's leader, Rolf Issels, MD, a professor of
medical oncology at Klinikum Grosshadern Medical Center at the University of
Munich.

"These findings provide a new standard treatment option and we believe they
are likely to change the way many specialists treat these tumors," he tells
WebMD.

The results were presented at a joint meeting of the European Cancer
Organization and the European Society of Medical Oncology.

Soft tissue sarcomas involve tumors that start in the soft, supporting
tissues of the body, such as muscle, fat, blood vessels, nerves, tendons,
tissue around the joints, and deep layers of the skin . They are relatively
rare, accounting for about 3% of all cancers, but are more common in children
and young adults.

Surgery is the primary treatment, but the tumors are difficult to remove, so
radiation and/or chemotherapy are often given to kill lingering cancer
cells.

However, the benefits of chemotherapy have been shown to be limited, Issels
says, and high-risk patients often relapse within two or three years.

Targeted Heat Therapy: How It Works

That's where targeted heat therapy comes in. The technique, known as
regional hyperthermia, uses focused electromagnetic energy to warm the tissue
in and around the tumor to between 104 and 109.4 degrees Fahrenheit.

The heat packs a four-pronged attack against the tumor, says Gerard C. van
Rhoon, PhD, head of the hyperthermia unit at Erasmus University Medical Center
in Rotterdam, Netherlands.

First, it directly kills cancer cells, he says. It also improves blood flow,
which allows more chemotherapy to get through to the area of the tumor.

The improved blood flow also brings more oxygen to the tumor, which makes it
more sensitive to radiation. Finally, the heat interferes with cancer cells'
repair mechanisms and they die off, van Rhoon tells WebMD.

The new study involved 341 patients being treated for locally advanced soft
tissue sarcomas that were at high risk of recurrence and spread.

All patients were given chemotherapy before and after surgery and radiation
treatment afterward. Half were randomly assigned to targeted heat treatment
along with the chemotherapy. Then they were followed for an average of nearly
three years.

"Patients receiving the targeted therapy fared better on all the outcome
measures," Issels says. Among the findings:


  • Patients who got heat therapy were 42% less likely to experience a
    recurrence of their cancer at the same site or to die than those who did
    not.

  • Heat-treated patients were 30% less likely to experience any recurrence or
    spread of cancer or to die.

  • The average length of time that patients remained disease free was 32
    months in the group that got heat treatments, compared with 18 months in the
    group that did not -- an improvement of 30%.


In an analysis of the 269 patients who completed all their treatments, those
given heat therapy were 66% less likely to die than those who did not get heat
treatment.

The technique is only offered at a handful of clinics and hospitals in
Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Norway, Issels says.

The new findings bolster the case for exploring the strategy in other types
of tumors, he says, adding that is has already shown promise for recurrent
breast and locally advanced cervical cancer . It's also been shown to work in
bladder cancer , van Rhoon says.

The most frequent side effect of the heat therapy was mild to moderate
discomfort, reported by 45% of patients. The most serious side effect was
severe burns , seen in one patien. Blisters occurred in 17.8% of patients.

By Charlene Laino
Reviewed by Louise Chang
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