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Other advances in cancer treatment

New treatments zero in on the vulnerabilities of cancer cells.

As scientists learn more about cancer, they’re developing promising new therapies that target specific types of tumor cells and inhibit their growth. On their own or in combination with other conventional treatments, these therapies can reduce the size of some tumors and alleviate symptoms. Some new therapies offer hope for people with cancers that have been resistant to more mainstream treatments.

The more we know

Every day cancer researchers find out more about how certain tumors grow and how to stop them from growing. For example, the discovery that some tumor cells are vulnerable to heat has led to the development of hyperthermia and radiofrequency ablation therapies.

New technologies also continue to pave the way for safer and more effective techniques of administering conventional cancer treatments. Many of these advances revolve around methods of delivering chemotherapy and radiation directly to tumors while avoiding damage to healthy tissues and organs.

Hyperthermia

Hyperthermia treatments raise the temperature of a tumor to 106° or more — high enough to damage its cells. Your doctor may heat the tumor externally using high-frequency waves. It can also be heated internally using implanted wires, microwave antennae, or radiofrequency electrodes. In a technique called hyperthermic perfusion, the tumor tissues or blood vessels are bathed with a warm solution containing chemotherapy drugs.

Hyperthermia is most effective when it’s used in combination with chemotherapy and radiation, since heat makes the cancer cells more sensitive to these therapies.

Radiofrequency ablation (RFA)

Radiofrequency ablation is another treatment that manipulates the vulnerability of cancer cells to heat. Designed for the treatment of cancers that cannot be removed surgically, RFA uses a special catheter to deliver electrical energy — similar to micro-waves — directly to the tumor. As the temperature of the tumor cells rises above 113°, the cell structures become damaged, and they die almost immediately. RFA can be a fast, effective, and relatively low-risk alternative to more standard treatments.

Photodynamic Therapy (PDT)

Scientists have discovered certain non-toxic chemicals that make tumor cells vulnerable to light. These chemicals, called photosensitizing agents, are injected into your bloodstream and become concentrated in the cancerous cells. Then the doctor shines a special light onto the tumor, destroying the now light-sensitive cells. PDT has been used successfully to treat many types of skin cancer, esophageal cancer, and some lung cancers.

Chemoembolization

Liver tumors — both primary and metastatic — can be notoriously difficult to treat with surgery. Chemoembolization is a local therapy that can reduce the size of these cancers. By threading a catheter through the main artery that feeds the liver, the oncologist delivers a powerful dose of chemotherapy directly to the organ.

The doctor also uses the catheter to administer substances called microspheres, which temporarily block the flow of blood to the tumor and trap the chemotherapy inside the liver, where it’s needed most. This can also minimize the side effects of the chemotherapy.

Restricting the blood supply hinders the formation of blood vessels that feed the tumor. This strategy, known as anti-angiogenesis, starves the tumor of the oxygen and nutrients it needs to grow. Chemoembolization can reduce symptoms and, in some cases, improve the outlook for people with liver cancer.

Stereotactic Radiosurgery

Certain cancers, especially brain tumors, respond to CyberKnife® robotic surgery and other types of stereotactic radiosurgery that deliver high doses of radiation to a targeted area. The standard procedure uses a rigid metal frame to immobilize the head during surgery to ensure accuracy.

CyberKnife and tomotherapy eliminate the need for this frame by using advanced imaging and robotics to target and deliver the radiation. In addition to making radiosurgery less invasive, stereotactic techniques may deliver radiation with more accuracy.

Intraoperative Radiation Therapy

With this technique, doctors administer radiation directly to a tumor that’s exposed during surgery. This allows the tumor to receive a more concentrated dose of radiation and limits the damage to healthy tissue. It can be effective on cancers that may not be treatable by surgery alone, especially tumors that surgeons can’t remove completely because they’re attached to vital healthy tissues or organs.