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How heat helps heal cancer

Reading time: 9 minutes

Integrative cancer doctor Henning Saupe, a specialist in oncological hyperthermia, explains how this unique heat-harnessing therapy can help wipe out cancer with minimal side effects

Therapeutic use of heat is probably the oldest form of cancer therapy in the history of medicine. Historians believe even the ancient Egyptians burned out tumor wounds using a branding iron.1 Caustic agents, or heat, destroy tissues in a process known as cauterization, which can also be used to stop bleeding. The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates was convinced that if cancer could not be cured by heat, then it was incurable.2

Hyperthermia is a type of artificially induced fever through the therapeutic application of heat. It’s used to overheat either the entire organism (whole-body hyperthermia) or part of it (local hyperthermia) under controlled conditions.

Fever therapy triggers certain reactions in the whole organism, in the immune system or specifically in the tumor that are useful for treating cancer. These effects include triggering an immune modulation or “internal tumor vaccination” in which heat causes cancer cells to form what are known as heat shock proteins on their surface. This makes them more “visible” to the immune system, which can then attack them.3

Heat as an integrative therapy

Hyperthermia treatments can also be helpful when carried out alongside radiation therapy.

During and after radiation therapy, cancer cells try to defend themselves against the treatment by initiating repair processes, which is one of the undesirable side effects of this therapy. In the worst-case scenario, some cancer cells “gain strength” and manage to emerge from radiation therapy stronger and more aggressive than before.

The heat that hyperthermia treatments generate, however, makes cancer cells sensitive to radiation treatment (such as classic radiation therapy using gamma rays) and blocks their repair processes.

Hyperthermia treatments can also boost the effectiveness of many anticancer drugs used in chemotherapy without increasing the number or severity of side effects in healthy cells. The heat produces the potentiation effect. Chemotherapy agents containing platinum, for example, have a much stronger effect in combination with hyperthermia than they would at normal body temperature.

Hyperthermia also intensifies the effect of new immunotherapy agents such as “checkpoint inhibitors” (e.g., nivolumab, pembrolizumab, ipilimumab). Immune checkpoints are receptors on the membrane of T cells that regulate the organism’s immune response; they serve as instructions for the immune system.

Tumor cells can use these immune checkpoints to escape recognition by the immune system. Checkpoint inhibitors interrupt this connection to immune checkpoints so that the immune system can recognize degenerated cancer cells and fight them.

Heat also drives the momentum of these drugs and therefore the overall effectiveness of the treatment. Hyperthermia improves blood circulation and the flow properties of the blood, facilitating the transport of drugs into the tumor area. What’s more, hyperthermia stimulates the vitality of the immune cells, which is the purpose of fever: to improve the body’s ability to fight inflammation and disease-causing agents.

Local radio wave hyperthermia

Local radio wave hyperthermia, which is applied exclusively to a single organ, or loco-regional hyperthermia, which is applied to an area of the body such as the pelvis or abdomen, is carried out over the course of an hour using a special device that sends radio waves at a frequency of 13.54 megahertz (MHz) through the patient’s body.

Two applicators (also called antennae) are placed parallel to each other on each side of the body to allow the radio wave field to flow through the body. The patient feels the area growing increasingly warm but does not experience any pain.

Healthy tissues allow the radio waves at this frequency to pass through largely unhindered and therefore to increase only slightly in temperature. According to physicists, the cancer cells’ energy absorption is at its highest at this frequency. This causes them to overheat, creating conditions that are not ideal for them and inducing the effects mentioned earlier.

Laboratory tests show that these frequencies trigger a process known as apoptosis, which means some of the cancer cells exposed to the frequencies begin to die off naturally.4

Whole-body hyperthermia

Another form of heat treatment is moderate, whole-body hyperthermia at temperatures between 39°C and 41°C (102°F and 105°F). It was developed by New York surgeon William B. Coley (1862–1936), who in 1883 treated a 19-year-old cancer patient for the first time with injections of febrile bacteria (a mixture of Streptococcus pyogenes and Serratia marcesens).

The bedridden man had an inoperable soft tissue mass measuring 16 cm by 13 cm—a sarcoma (cancerous tumor) on the abdominal wall that had already penetrated the bladder and led to incontinence.

Each of the bacteria injections triggered a fever reaction that increased his body temperature to over 40°C. After four months, Dr Coley saw the disease go into complete remission, and the man never experienced a relapse of the sarcoma (he died of a heart attack 26 years later).

Many years after Coley’s death, his niece Helen Coley Nauts scientifically reviewed a description of the case—which seemed almost like a miracle—alongside 1,000 other treatment cases.5 It was also documented in numerous publications. Coley himself worked on a textbook about fever therapy until shortly before his death, but the book was never completed or published.

For over 44 years, Coley treated cancer patients with injections of bacterial mixtures at a time when antibiotics and effective antipyretic drugs were unavailable. In more than half of over 1,000 cases, he managed to stabilize patients or lead them into remission.

Some don’t like it hot

It’s a wonder that fever therapy for cancer hasn’t garnered more attention. In most countries around the world, the active form of it has long been banned.

Just a few years after Coley’s death, fever therapy was discredited as old-fashioned and dangerous and gave way to more “modern” methods of radiation and, later, chemotherapy. But it experienced a revival, especially in Germany after World War II, largely thanks to two researchers: Stuttgart radiologist Martin Heckel (1926–2007) and Dresden scientist Manfred von Ardenne (1907–1997), both of whom are considered pioneers in the discipline.

Heckel suffered from the effects of poliomyelitis and began treating himself with an infrared whole-body hyperthermia device that he built in the 1950s. His muscle pain and mobility problems improved so significantly during this treatment that he presented his device to the German radiotherapy journal Strahlentherapie in 1960. In 1971, he set up his own hyperthermia treatment center, where he mainly treated patients with musculoskeletal system diseases, chronic inflammation and cancer.6

Von Ardenne was a brilliant scientist behind 600 patented inventions, including the first television (1930) and the scanning electron microscope (1937). After many decades of working in electrical engineering and nuclear physics research, he began to dedicate himself to cancer research following a historical conversation with the founder and director of the Berlin Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Cell Physiology, Otto Warburg (who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1931).

His whole-body hyperthermia device functions by using water-filtered infrared A emitters. These devices emit long-wave infrared A rays that penetrate deep into the tissue, resulting in particularly effective deep heating without damaging the skin.

Von Ardenne was the first to use and systematically research whole-body hyperthermia administered using a device specifically developed for the purpose. Others successfully applied his treatment methods in a clinical setting and scientifically investigated them in Dresden and at the Greifswald University Clinic, among others.

In the early 1970s, doctors also successfully used his whole-body hyperthermia method in a hospital in Friedrichshafen, Germany. Plans for a hyperthermia research institute in Friedrichshafen were underway but were eventually blocked by the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg, which favored chemotherapy.7

Politics, money and power games thwarted any further clinical development of whole-body hyperthermia in Germany, which is why today the treatment can be found almost exclusively in practices of doctors specializing in integrative medicine.

Hyperthermia in practice

I have been using various forms of hyperthermia in my practice since 2005. Typically, we treat our patients with series of local radio-wave hyperthermia up to four times a week, one hour each time, ideally alongside an infusion of anticancer substances such as high-dose vitamin C.

After around 12 of these treatments, we evaluate the effect by determining tumor markers, if the tumor produces any; ultrasound, in case the tumor is visible with ultrasound; and a scanning technique, either CT (computerized tomography), MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) or PET-CT (positron emission tomography combined with CT), depending on the case.

We use both Heckel’s and von Ardenne’s devices alongside whole-body hyperthermia and other treatments like medical oxygen, given through a nasal cannula, which was part of von Ardenne’s Systematic Multi-step Cancer Therapy. Oxygen therapy makes cancer cells more sensitive to the effects of a drug while strengthening healthy cells.

Fever and mental well-being

A phenomenon largely neglected until now that I noticed from my early observations of patients is a positive change in mood after fever therapy. The treatment positively influences mental blockages as well as a depressive mood in patients, both of which are common in oncology alongside anxiety and inner tension.

With hyperthermia, it’s vital for trained staff to accompany patients during the two to three hours it takes to give the treatment. Not only must they monitor the technical and medical implementation of the treatment but they should also support the patient through their fever experience and be there for support as the patient tells their life story, shares their grief and often cries.

Psychotherapists know how beneficial it can be for a patient to let go, acknowledge feelings and cry during a therapeutic procedure. Before starting whole-body hyperthermia, we let our patients take a warm foot bath to mentally prepare for the treatment and to raise their body temperature.

Evidence of the positive mental effect of the therapy is apparent in the drawings collected from patients before and after therapy; we simply ask them to express their mood using colors. An image speaks a thousand words.

In our clinic, we call this area of work “psycho-thermo therapy.” On the day after the fever therapy, our patients regularly report feeling relieved and revitalized, both physically and mentally.

Sweat it out

Fever therapy also has a powerful detoxifying effect, although this has yet to be extensively scientifically researched. Detoxification, supporting the body’s natural toxin removal system, is a crucial part of cancer treatment, and whole-body hyperthermia is the most intensive form of detoxification therapy that we perform in our practice.

During a full-body hyperthermia treatment, the patient sweats out hundreds of milliliters—and sometimes up to a liter—of sweat and receives corresponding amounts of pure, filtered water to compensate. This helps to improve well-being after fever therapy.

Other, milder, ways to detox via sweating include sitting in a classic Finnish sauna or an infrared sauna, which can be done at home with the right equipment.

Hyperthermia studies

Clinical trials,1 including randomized controlled trials, considered the gold standard of scientific evidence, have reported positive outcomes when hyperthermia was used as an add-on treatment for cancers of the esophagus,2 breast,3 lung,4 pancreas,5 bladder,6 prostate,7 rectum,8 anus,9 pelvis10 and other tumors.11

An overall “complete response” (the disappearance of all signs of cancer in response to treatment) of 54.9 percent with both hyperthermia and radiotherapy treatment, compared to 39.8 percent with radiotherapy alone, was reported from 38 clinical trials involving nearly 3,500 patients with various tumors.12

Other research in advanced cancers shows better overall survival rates in patients treated with combined hyperthermia with radiotherapy or chemotherapy compared to those receiving either conventional treatment alone.13

A recent review of the evidence on hyperthermia as an integrative therapy noted that when added to radiotherapy and/or chemotherapy it’s “both safe and efficacious.”14

Additional reporting by WDDTY

High-dose infusions

At my clinic, hyperthermia treatment is typically coupled with regular infusions of anticancer agents. Two of the most important are curcumin and vitamin C.

Curcumin: This compound, found in the spice turmeric, is a natural anti-inflammatory. But patients would need to take large amounts, at least 1,125 to 2,500 mg daily, to achieve a noticeable anti-inflammatory effect.

Curcumin is poorly absorbed from the intestine into the blood, so taking it orally results in very sparse therapeutic or anti-inflammatory effects on the whole body. To treat illnesses such as cancer or inflammatory diseases, intravenous infusions are much more effective.

Vitamin C: Vitamin C can boost the immune system in stressful situations, such as by supporting the white blood cells that we need and use up en masse during infections. But it’s also frequently and successfully used in cancer therapy. For an optimal immune system, take at least 500–1,000 mg daily.

Consuming citrus fruits or berries containing vitamin C, especially the acerola cherry, is the most natural way to take vitamin C. However, cancer treatment requires very high doses (30–100 g) in the form of an infusion.

 

Adapted from Holistic Cancer Medicine by Henning Saupe (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2022). Get 30 percent off your copy of Holistic Cancer Medicine using code WDDTY30. Visit chelseagreen.co.uk and enter your code at checkout.

Henning Saupe, MD, is the founder and medical director of the Arcadia Practice in Germany, (arcadia-praxisklinik.de), a center for integrative medicine and cancer therapy. In 2005, he founded the Arkadiakliniken in Stockholm, the first hyperthermia clinic in Sweden specializing in oncological hyperthermia.

 

References
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JA23: Give me fever
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