This article explores a little-known but astonishing health phenomenon. According to the work of a ground-breaking doctor, it is possible to cure a person of some cancers by inducing them to suffer a serious fever. This remedy might sound like a quack-cure but there are logical and scientific reasons why our bodies, when in the state of a high-fever, could eradicate a cancer from their system.

Farmer Buckley’s Exploding Trousers

Not long ago, I chanced upon a book published by the New Scientist magazine. It’s called, ‘Farmer Buckley’s Exploding Trousers and other odd events on the way to scientific discovery’. It consists of a series of short stories (each a few pages long) about weird and wonderful, and often also very important, scientific and technological inventions and discoveries. It is an enjoyable book to read, although reading a long string of disconnected stories can feel a bit laborious sometimes, but there some absolute gems amongst its collection.

One story particularly jumped out at me. On page 21 of the book, the author describes the fascinating story of Dr William Coley, an American doctor living and working in New York in the 1870’s. During his work as a medical doctor, Dr Coley stumbled upon a fascinating pattern. He had been treating patients with tumours for years. The standard medical treatment for these tumours was to cut them out, but this crude method was far from successful. In many, if not most cases, the tumours grew back. Coley discovered something that did cause the tumours to disappear. If a patient had a tumour, but then suffered an infection that sent them into a high fever, they were very often entirely cured of their tumours. For example, the book reports:

The man’s medical records were quite clear. His case was hopeless. In the space of three years, he had had five operations to remove a tumour from his neck. The last was a failure: it was impossible to remove the whole tumour. He would die soon. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the poor man then suffered two attacks of erysipelas, a skin infection that produced a lurid red rash and a high fever. But when the fever broke and the man recovered, his tumour had vanished. Seven years later, he was still alive and well. There could be only one explanation: whatever had caused the fever had also destroyed the cancer.

Dr Coley, pictured, realised that he’d found something of great importance. At the same time, he knew that he couldn’t give patients with cancer serious diseases purely to induce a high fever and thereby rid them of their tumour. Fortunately, he didn’t have to inflict a disease on them; there were ways that a person could develop a high-fever without seriously threatening their health. Dr Coley made use of this phenomenon. He developed a technique whereby he would use a tailored bacterial mixture that would induce a fever but not threaten the patient’s health. He injected that mixture directly into the patient’s tumours with the aim of pitching them into a high fever of 40 degrees centigrade. The technique worked. When the fever broke, in many cases, the tumours were gone and, more importantly, they never returned. Coley often had to repeat the procedure for several months, at intervals, in order for the patient’s tumour to disappear completely. It was a long and involved process but its success-rate was amazing. As Stephen Hoption Cann, an epidemiologist at the University of British Columbia stated:

‘Coley had successes you couldn’t even hope for today, curing even extensive metastatic disease’.

The story of Dr Coley, and his technique, ends with an excellent quote from the 17th century physician Thomas Sydenham:

‘Fever is a mighty engine which Nature brings into the world for the conquest of her enemies’

The tricky question that arises from this story is; why isn’t this technique used today?

Zap the body

Chemotherapy and radiotherapy are now the main treatments for trying to rid a patient of cancer. Unfortunately, the success rates of these techniques is not good. This scientific paper, entitled ‘The contribution of cytotoxic chemotherapy to 5-year survival in adult malignancies‘, authored by Graeme Morgan, Robyn Ward and Michael Barton, published in 2004, studied cancer survival rates for people using chemotherapy, compared to those who didn’t. Its results are sobering. To quote from the abstract:

Results: The overall contribution of curative and adjuvant cytotoxic chemotherapy to 5-year survival in adults was estimated to be 2.3% in Australia and 2.1% in the USA.

Conclusion: As the 5-year relative survival rate for cancer in Australia is now over 60%, it is clear that cytotoxic chemotherapy only makes a minor contribution to cancer survival. To justify the continued funding and availability of drugs used in cytotoxic chemotherapy, a rigorous evaluation of the cost-effectiveness and impact on quality of life is urgently required.

The benefits of using radiotherapy as a cancer treatment also vary and in some cases, are controversial. This scientific paper, entitled, ‘Effect of radiotherapy on the survival of cervical cancer patients, authored by Yang, Jian PhDa; Cai, Haoyang PhDa; Xiao, Zhi-Xiong PhDa; Wang, Hangyu MDb, Yang, Ping MDc, makes several critical comments. Its abstract states:

Cervical cancer is among the most frequent cancer types in women worldwide. Radiotherapy, including external beam radiation and brachytherapy, is one of the commonly used treatment options for cervical cancer. However, the adverse effects of radiation therapy on cervical cancer survival have been poorly investigated with inconclusive results… []. Our results indicated that patients without primary surgery, diagnosed at older age (≥45 years’ old), at advanced TNM stages (III/IV) or with larger tumor size (≥3 cm) could benefit from radiotherapy. However, radiotherapy was detrimental in patients with primary surgery, diagnosed at younger age (<45 years’ old), at earlier TNM stages (I/II) or with smaller tumor size (<3 cm). In addition, external beam radiation was in most cases less effective compared with combined external beam and brachytherapy. These results highlighted the necessity of realizing personalized radiotherapy treatments for patients with cervical cancer.

These scientific papers reflect a general problem with both treatments. They’re far from 100% successful, they enact a terrible toll on the patient’s body and sometimes they’re actually make things worse due to their toxicity. In the light of this, it might not be too much of a surprise to learn that chemotherapy was developed as a technique after scientists discovered that mustard gas, a potent chemical weapon used in World War 1, suppressed the body’s development of blood cells. After World War 2, research into this phenomenon was used to develop mustine, a chemotherapy drug.

Dr Coley’s method of dealing with cancers, by inducing fevers, seems even more desirable in the light of this data. The question is, why isn’t it being used? When the New Scientist magazine published an article on the fever-curing-cancer method, several people wrote it in. Here is one of the letters, from Heinz-Uwe Hobohm, from Giessen, Germany:

I was extremely interested in your discussion of the effects of fever (31 July, p 42). In 1996, while working in Germany on a cancer project at the University of Bremen, I stumbled on a 1951 paper by Louis Diamond and Leonard Luhby on spontaneous remission in childhood leukaemia (Journal of American Medicine, vol 10, p 238). They noted that a feverish infection preceded remission in 21 out of 26 children they studied. I remember jumping up from my chair thinking this cannot be happenstance. I investigated many publications on spontaneous regression from cancer. Many, if not a majority, of cases were preceded by a feverish infection – see my 2005 paper in the British Journal of Cancer (vol 92, p 421). Today we know that bacterial and viral chemicals such as lipopolysaccharides, which are strong inducers of fever, are needed to activate innate immune system – the body’s initial immune response which defends against pathogens in a general way without conferring immunity – and that this activation is needed to trigger a full-blown T-cell response against cancer cells. Yet whenever I present these findings in medical circles, the reaction is blunt mistrust. For example, at a recent conference on innate immunity I listened to a talk that revealed that many more patients survive sepsis, a whole-body inflammatory response, if they develop fever. I asked whether it might be worth considering inducing fever in high-risk patients. I received a brief response: “No”.

Another new scientist letter on this subject, from William Hughes-Games in Waipara, New Zealand, made a worrying, but valid point:

The trouble with using fever as a cancer cure is that it would not be patentable. It would be a repeat of the malaria-wormwood story: progress in the widespread use of artemisinin – the anti-malaria agent derived from wormwood – was stymied for many years by the lack of obvious profitability.

Where do we go from here? Clearly, it’s not advisable to perform Dr Coley’s treatment at home if someone has a serious cancer. It requires a trained medical practitioner to carry out a course of injections of bacteria tailored to that person over a period of months. Unfortunately, there is also clearly little chance of someone getting that treatment from their doctor. This could be due to ignorance, or an issue of profitability, as mentioned in the above letter, or alternatively, it could be an issue of culpability and accountability. For example,  if a doctor injected a cancer sufferer with a bacteria, to create a fever, and that patient died, his or her family could easily sue the doctor for vast sums of money and possibly have him struck off. If, instead, the doctor puts the patient on a course of chemotherapy or radiotherapy, he will not be blamed if the procedures do not succeed. What is required is a major initiative, involving both the medical establishment and the public perception of cancer treatments. Hopefully, that will eventually happen.