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The Cancer Lessons of Lance Armstrong

2 minute read

With a few notable exceptions, the treatment of anyone whose cancer has spread throughout the body has been more about prolonging lives by a few months than about curing the underlying disease. But the amazing progress in the treatment of advanced cases of testicular cancer — made famous by seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong — has doctors wondering if maybe they have overlooked one of the body’s most basic weapons in the fight against disease: heat.

That’s what three researchers from Johns Hopkins Medical School in Baltimore believe. In a highly speculative, but well-reasoned, article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, they argue that testicular cancer is amenable to current treatments because testicular cancer cells are particularly vulnerable to modest increases in temperature — in the same way that normal sperm cells are vulnerable to increases in temperature. (Indeed, without the testes’ somewhat cooler environment outside the body, most sperm cells would degenerate and be unable to fertilize eggs.)

That doesn’t mean that heat, per se, is currently a part of standard testicular cancer treatment. But whatever it is that makes testicular cancer cells vulnerable to heat, the Hopkins authors argue, makes the cells more vulnerable to radiation and chemotherapy. Because they originate in the testes, those cancer cells are more vulnerable to heat, radiation and chemotherapy even after they migrate throughout the body.

If this line of argument is correct, then heating up other tumors — from, say, breast cancer or colon cancer — could help boost the effect of chemotherapy and radiation. Such so-called hyperthermia treatments have been tried in the past, with little success — in part because it was difficult to isolate the tumor from the normal tissue around it. But it’s possible that new developments in nano-technology could change the picture.

Researchers have developed tiny iron coils wrapped in a packaging of fatty molecules that respond to strong magnetic fields by heating up. For whatever reason, cancer cells seem to like these fatty iron coils. Get enough of the coils into a tumor and you might be able to basically cook it to death. The Hopkins authors argue it’s worth a shot. Any practical applications would, however, be a long way off.

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