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Monday, 20 May, 2002, 00:03 GMT 01:03 UK
'Heat treatment' for breast cancer
The innovative therapy attacks breast tumours
The innovative therapy attacks breast tumours
Heat treatment could halt and even destroy breast cancer tumours, US doctors believe.

They have developed a device where women lie upon a massage-like table for an hour as radio frequency waves warm their breasts, which lie in a sunken pool of water.

In a study which combined it with a specific way of delivering chemotherapy, it halted tumour growth in all the women who took part.

In several cases, it destroyed all visible signs of the tumour and in others, it removed the need for surgery.

The team, from Duke Comprehensive Cancer Center, Durham, North Carolina, say the treatment works because the heat triggers the chemotherapy they have just received to settle inside the tumour.

The rest of the body's tissues are not heated, so the combined effect of the drug and the Jacuzzi is only seen in the breasts.

Researchers have rather irreverently dubbed the device the "booby Jacuzzi."

But they say that, despite the light-hearted name, the treatment can offer hope to women with advanced tumours which often resist traditional treatments.

They estimate that between 60 and 70% of women with this type of cancer do not survive for more than five years.

Delivering drugs

The Duke research tested the Jacuzzi treatment on 21 women with newly diagnosed breast cancers in a 12-week trial, funded by the National Cancer Institute.

The chemotherapy was delivered inside liposomes, which are "vessels" in which toxic drugs can be delivered into the body.

The results showed the combined therapy partially shrank tumours in half.

In 11%, no cancer was found when doctors analysed breast tissue after it had been removed.

In a third, visible signs of the tumour could no longer be detected, and in 17% patients were deemed suitable for lumpectomies rather than mastectomies.

Most of the women had been told they had tumours which were inoperable, and the goal of the treatment was to shrink tumours enough for surgery.

The combination treatment also appears to mean fewer side-effects than with traditional chemotherapy.

Heat treatment

Heat improves the way the drugs work because it draws the liposomes out of the bloodstream directly to the tumour site.

Blood vessels in tumours are leaky, and heat pulls them apart even more - allowing the liposomes to get right into the tumour.

Heat also increases how well the drug is absorbed into the cancer cell and increases oxygen levels in the tumour which makes chemotherapy more effective.

It also increases the DNA damage that chemotherapy does to cancer cells by preventing the enzymes that normally repair such damage.

The researchers have also developed a type of liposomes which melt quickly, so the drug can be delivered into the tumour within 20 seconds of heating.

They melt at 40C (104F), warm enough to give the benefits of heat but cool enough to prevent burning the patient's skin.

It is the temperature to which a Jacuzzi is typically heated; hence the treatment's nickname.

Dr Ellen Jones, a radiation oncologist at Duke, said: "By delivering the drugs to the precise site of the tumour, and releasing them at a precise point in time, we'll be able to best utilize their tumour-fighting abilities where they are needed most."

A spokeswoman for Cancer Research UK said: "Treatments that precisely target cancer cells and spare normal tissue will be the cancer therapies of the future."

She added: "Finding effective ways of targeting drugs to the sites of tumours is the focus of much research and there are a variety of methods being tested in the clinic.

"The results from Dr Blackwell's trial are very encouraging and we hope further studies will confirm the effectiveness of the treatment."

The research was presented to the American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting in Orlando, Florida.

See also:

14 Apr 02 | Health
'Smart tablet' for breast cancer
28 Nov 01 | Health
Chinese remedy 'may fight cancer'
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