The Fever Paradox
How heat can save lives.
When I grew up, I was lucky to have a family doctor who didn’t treat fever as a mere symptom (or worse: a disease), but actually considered it for what it truly is — our immune system’s response to try rid itself of unwanted pathogens.
I’m therefore not a big friend of taking antipyretics right at the onset of a cold or influenza even at the risk of running a somewhat higher temperature.
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Or would you shut down the smoke alarm to prevent a fire?
One of the reasons I always enjoyed the more feverish moments in my life (with the exception of one incident as a child where I was about to cross 41.3°C which is when doctors intervened), is that I have a certain confidence in our body’s immune system to help heal itself, and that I always noticed a more youthful appearance, better skin and stronger immune system in the aftermath of a fever.
Of course these are mere subjective observations, but of repetitive evidence to me personally. Given the positive effects of fever on certain illnesses, is it possible to induce an “artificial fever” in a person to kill a virus, bacteria or even cancer cells?1 After all, it’s well known that certain pathogens cannot live above certain temperatures.
“Take the common viral infection chickenpox. In a study of 72 children, those who weren't given drugs known to reduce fever recovered faster. Likewise, a study of 56 people infected with one of the viruses that causes the common cold found that those who took certain fever-reducing drugs remained infectious for longer.” […] “Fever-like responses are observed in many organisms, suggesting fever's evolutionary origins may stretch back hundreds of millions of years. Even some plants have been shown to increase their leaf temperature in response to fungal infections, while cold-blooded creatures will deliberately raise their body temperature if they have an infection, by sitting on a hot rock, for instance. In the case of the desert iguana, not being allowed to do so was seen to cause a 75 per cent reduction in survival rates.” — Linda Geddes2
The History of Artificial Fevers
“Hyperthermia”3 (a combination of the two Greek words: hyper (rise) and therme (heat) refers to the increasing of body temperature (or selected tissues) in order to achieve a precise therapeutic effect.
The ancient Greeks were already fascinated by heat and its possible healing properties. They used hot springs and steam baths to treat various ailments, but it was an art rather than a science, as burnings could easily occur and nobody could exactly measure or guarantee the correct (and constant!) temperature needed to treat the respective disease.
These simple practices laid the foundation for the understanding of hyperthermia as a medical therapy.4
“Give me the power to produce fever and I will cure all diseases” — Greek philosopher Parmenides5 (ca. 540 – ca. 470 B.C.)
The foundation of new medical research into hyperthermia was established by the German surgeon Carl D.W. Busch (1826-1881), who recognized as early as the mid-19th century that an increased body temperature can strengthen the immune response and influence tumor cells.
Another significant contribution to the development of hyperthermia came from William B. Coley, who in the early 20th century discovered the connection between fever and the regression of tumors. He developed what is known as Coley's toxin therapy, in which bacteria were used to induce fever. This treatment method was a precursor of modern hyperthermia and demonstrated the potential of targeted heat therapy in cancer treatment6.
In the 20th century, Otto Warburg7 and Manfred von Ardenne8 played a decisive role in the research and development of hyperthermia methods. Their groundbreaking work contributed significantly to the recognition and further development of this therapeutic method.
I still remember the moment when I first heard about Hyperthermia. Several years ago, a close friend was struck with cancer and regularly went to an innovative type of treatment in a special clinic where they induced artificial fever into his whole body.
This type of hyperthermia is called whole-body hyperthermia (“WBH”) and is a particularly fascinating therapy method. The innovative science behind is well researched, yet constantly updated and applied with many successful patient treatments already.
Given the positive impact WBH had on my friends personal journey, I decided to take a deeper look, so I visited the Von Ardenne Institute in Dresden where I met with Noah Molinski, their Head of Research and Development, who shared the following insights with me:
Manfred Baron von Ardenne was the famous physicist and best-known inventor of the German Democratic Republic (with over 600 patents) who had continued Warburg's work on Hyperthermia from the mid of the last century.
Beginning in the 1960s, he developed innovative medical devices and methods, including high frequency9 (“HF”) - hyperthermia, in which tumors are heated with microwave energy, and a WBH procedure in which the entire body is heated using water-filtered infrared A radiation.
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