News on an Unusual Cancer Treatment by Heat in Surgery (Hipec)
There’s so much weird and exciting cancer news this week, it’s hard to keep up!
Double-kudos to Andrew Pollack on his front-page and careful coverage in the New York Times of the hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy (Hipec) technique that’s being used at some name-brand health care facilities to treat colon cancer.
First, he spares no detail in the Times describing the seemingly primitive, crude method:
….For hours on a recent morning at the University of California, San Diego, Dr. Andrew Lowy painstakingly performed the therapy on a patient.
After slicing the man’s belly wide open, he thrust his gloved hands deep inside, and examined various organs, looking for tumors. He then lifted the small intestine out of the body to sift it through his fingers…
….After about two hours of poking and cutting, Dr. Lowy began the so-called shake and bake. The machine pumped heated chemotherapy directly into the abdominal cavity for 90 minutes while nurses gently jiggled the man’s bloated belly to disperse the drug to every nook and cranny.
As a patient, I have to wonder, who’d sign up for this? And yet it seems they can’t complete a good randomized trial, for patients fear they’ll get the regular treatments only, without the Hipec. As an oncologist, I have to think, how can they possibly do a randomized clinical trial for this sort of method; the results would vary, enormously, from surgeon to surgeon, and from patient to patient – depending on the tumor load and responsiveness to heat, besides all the other tumor variables, even if the Hipec did help a patient or a few.
Pollack supplements the lead story with a shorter piece on hipectreatment.com, a website that obviously promotes the treatment but doesn’t reveal industry ties. According to his article, a competing site, HipecDoctor.com, lists doctors who do it (Hipec), but only includes those who use the site’s sponsoring company’s equipment.
At times like this, Nixon’s “war on cancer” takes on new meaning.
The business of oncology gets messy, on-line and in real patients’ guts. If you ask me, the Hipec approach might be labeled “alternative.” It’s certainly unconventional.
FDA, how do you classify this stuff?
Hard not to contrast the Hipec news with the neatly-designed, high-tech and scientifically-detailed approach published yesterday in the NEJM for treatment of patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia. That limited but fascinating report, of intense interest to cancer immunologists and gene therapists, serves mainly as proof of principle.
To find out more on Hipec, I intend to watch the segment of Grey’s Anatomy (see one of many related news clip here, scroll down) which may have popularized – and increased demand – for this procedure among desperate patients.