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In an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers have suggested that the responsiveness of testicular cancer cells to chemotherapy may be explained by the sensitivity of these cells to heat. If this proves to be the case, it may be possible to use heat to improve response to cancer treatment in patients with other types of cancer as well.

Patients with advanced testicular cancer have a high probability of being cured by chemotherapy. Lance Armstrong, for example, appears to have been cured of testicular cancer that had spread to the brain, abdomen, and lung. Understanding the basis of testicular cancer’s responsiveness to chemotherapy (the “Lance Armstrong Effect”) may help improve treatment outcomes for patients with other types of cancers as well.

One possible explanation for the responsiveness of testicular cancer cells to chemotherapy is exposure of the cells to heat. The testes are normally cooler than the rest of the body. Testicular cancer cells that spread outside the testes are exposed to the higher temperature of the rest of the body. Exposure to this higher temperature may make the cancer cells more susceptible to cancer treatments such as chemotherapy.

If this proves to be the case, increasing the temperature of other types of cancer cells may improve treatment outcomes for patients with these other types of cancer. Increased cancer cell temperature (hyperthermia) could potentially improve responsiveness to radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and immunotherapy.

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Previous studies of hyperthermia in cancer treatment have produced limited success, but more understanding of how best to use the technique may improve outcomes. It appears, for example, that more frequent administration of moderate levels of heat may provide better outcomes than administration of very high levels of heat. In addition, techniques that deliver heat directly to cancer cells may maximize the effectiveness of hyperthermia while minimizing exposure of normal tissue.

In summary, while the idea of using hyperthermia in cancer treatment is not new, the theory addressed by this commentary supports continued exploration of this approach.

Reference: Coffey DS, Getzenberg RH, DeWeese TL. Hyperthermic Biology and Cancer Therapies: A Hypothesis for the “Lance Armstrong Effect.” Journal of the American Medical Association. 2006;296:445-448.