Heat may be the next big thing in ovarian cancer treatment. In a new study, researchers at Oregon State University have shown that a combination of heat and cytotoxic drugs delivered with nanotechnology can kill up to 95 percent of ovarian cancer cells. The discovery could inspire more effective treatments and prevention strategies for a disease that currently kills more than 150,000 women each year worldwide.

Published in The International Journal of Pharmaceutics, the study suggests that localized hyperthermia can improve the effect of traditional chemotherapy drugs by 65 percent. According to lead author Olena Taratula, such an improvement could have significant bearing on the prognosis in cases of ovarian cancer, in which chemotherapy is more or less inevitable. "Ovarian cancer is rarely detected early, and because of that chemotherapy is often needed in addition to surgery," Taratula said in a press release. "It's essential for the chemotherapy to be as effective as possible the first time it's used, and we believe this new approach should help with that."

The localized hyperthermia is made possible by an innovative drug delivery system based on nanotechnology. First, iron oxide nanoparticles are coated with a cytotoxic agent and delivered to cancer cells by a peptide. Once they are inside the sick cells, the nanoparticles are rapidly heated.

"The hyperthermia, or heating of cells, is done by subjecting the magnetic nanoparticles to an oscillating, or alternating magnetic field," co-author Pallavi Dhagat explained. "The nanoparticles absorb energy from the oscillating field and heat up." For the experiment, the team used the chemotherapy drug doxorubicin, which by itself would have left about 70 percent of the cancer cells alive. But when the cells were heated to about 104 degrees, only 5 percent survived.

"I'm very excited about this delivery system," Taratula said. "Cancer is always difficult to treat, and this should allow us to use lower levels of the toxic chemotherapeutic drugs, minimize side effects and the development of drug resistance, and still improve the efficacy of the treatment. We're not trying to kill the cell with heat, but using it to improve the function of the drug." That said, the new method is still in need of additional research. Animal tests and human trials must be completed before the finished product can be introduced to the market. Still, the researchers are confident that the new delivery system will improve the treatment of ovarian cancer as well as other elusive types of the disease.

Source: Olena Taratula, Raj Kumar Dani, Canan Schumann, Hong Xu, Andrew Wang, Han Song, Pallavi Dhagat, Oleh Taratula.Multifunctional nanomedicine platform for concurrent delivery of chemotherapeutic drugs and mild hyperthermia to ovarian cancer cells. International Journal of Pharmaceutics, 2013.