Thermal Oncology Program Developing at UMGCC

When it comes to attacking cancer cells, incorporating heat can be effective in enhancing treatment. Now, the department of radiation oncology at the University of Maryland Marlene and Stewart Greenebaum Cancer Center (UMGCC) is treating patients with breast cancer, melanomas, head and neck tumors, and sarcomas with external thermal therapy, also known as hyperthermia.

This is just one type of treatment available within the developing Thermal Oncology Program. For a number of years, UMGCC has offered hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy, or HIPEC, which uses heated chemotherapy in combination with surgery to treat cancers that have spread to the lining of the abdomen, as well as radiofrequency thermal ablation for the treatment of liver tumors.

External thermal therapy involves heating tumors to between 40 to 45 degrees Celsius (C). The heat sensitizes tumor cells to other forms of standard therapy, including radiation and chemotherapy. Numerous recent randomized clinical trials using thermal therapy in addition to standard therapy have demonstrated improvement in tumor local control and survival. It is a non-invasive procedure and requires no general anesthesia. Patients undergo one-hour-long sessions two to three times a week for roughly four to five weeks. Side effects are minimal and may include blisters or localized pain. External thermal therapy is used exclusively in conjunction with radiation and/or chemotherapy; it is not a stand-alone therapy.

“Within radiation oncology and throughout our cancer center, we strive to make every available tool in the cancer-fighting toolbox available for our patients. By continuing to develop a comprehensive thermal oncology program, we are giving patients more effective treatment options and therefore another reason to hope for better outcomes,” says William Regine, M.D., Isadore & Fannie Schneider Foxman chair in the department of radiation oncology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

“Many Americans are going to Europe for external thermal therapy,” explains Zeljko Vujaskovic, M.D., Ph.D., professor of radiation oncology, who recently joined the University of Maryland from North Carolina, where he was director of the clinical hyperthermia program at Duke University Medical Center. Dr. Vujaskovic is an internationally recognized leader in the field of hyperthermia cancer treatment and has served as president of the Society for Thermal Medicine. “With this developing thermal oncology program at the University of Maryland Greenebaum Cancer Center, we are able to offer patients non-toxic treatment with external thermal therapy that will further improve their odds in beating cancer,” he adds. “This is a very effective option in areas previously treated by radiation.”

Dr. Vujaskovic also points out that there are a number of current NIH-funded grants studying thermal therapy, and that external thermal therapy is included in the NCC Network Guidelines. It is highly recommended when treating breast cancer patients with chest wall recurrence, as well as other superficial/palpable cancers, especially occurring in an area of previous irradiation.