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How can infrared heat help treat cancer?

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Quick Answer

Near-infrared wavelengths have the potential to treat cancer in conjunction with cancer-targeting proteins called monoclonal antibodies, says the National Institutes of Health. The procedure, involving light rather than heat, is proven effective in mice, as of 2011.

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Monoclonal antibodies, in use for more than 10 years, target cancer cells by binding to proteins on the cell surface, says National Institutes of Health. This allows monoclonal antibody treatment to destroy cancer cells without damaging surrounding healthy tissue. However, antibody therapy involves attaching toxic drugs to the antibodies for delivery to cancer cells, potentially resulting in side effects for the patient. One approach involves attaching a light-sensitive fluorescent dye to the antibodies instead. Once the dye-tagged antibodies attach to cancer cells, they are exposed to near-infrared light.

Experiments in mice use monoclonal antibodies targeted to molecules involved with breast, lung, pancreatic, colon and prostate cancer, notes National Institutes of Health. Tumors in the mice showed significant decreases in size after only one exposure to light, with no apparent adverse affects to the animals. In culture, cancer cells quickly died in response to the light while surrounding, untargeted cells remained unharmed. The fluorescence also identifies cancerous cells and disappears as the cells die, allowing doctors to monitor the treatment's progress.

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