Heating tumors up by just a few degrees appears to help the body fight some types of cancer more effectively, new research has shown.

Increasing body temperature is an ages-old treatment known as hyperthermia, and it has been used to treat tumors and other diseases since the days of Hippocrates. But figuring out how to apply the heat in a controlled way has been a challenge.

Interest in hyperthermia had lulled for decades after a series of disappointing clinical trials, but recent encouraging studies have led to a resurgence in the field.

In recent years, clinical and lab studies have found that increasing the temperature of particular organs and cells appears to increase the effectiveness of chemotherapy and radiation, as well as of the body’s immune system. And new cancer drugs are being developed that are activated using heat, but only when the medicine reaches the targeted tumor—potentially enabling higher effective doses to be administered while minimizing side effects to normal tissue.

“If we can treat earlier with less toxicity, killing tumors before they get large, and trigger [greater] immune response, then we’ll have something really interesting,” says Brant Inman, a urology professor at Duke Cancer Institute, in Durham, N.C., who is studying hyperthermia.

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