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What is Cryotherapy?

During cryotherapy, a doctor inserts a long, needle-like instrument called a cryoprobe into the patient’s body to target solid tumors. The tumor is targeted accurately using computed tomography, or CAT scans. Once the needle is in place, super-cooled nitrogen or argon flows through the cryoprobe, causing the cancer tissue around the tip of the probe to freeze.

The doctor freezes and thaws the cancer tissue repeatedly, which damages cancer cells and interrupts blood flow to the tumor. Guided by CAT scan and ultrasound imaging, the doctor can destroy cancer tissue while leaving most healthy tissues undamaged. Cryotherapy can also be performed by spraying tumors with super-cooled nitrogen.

Illustration depicting a bronchoscope guiding a cryotherapy probe into the left lung to deliver cryotherapy to tumors in the region.

Cryotherapy Facts

  • Used to treat localized tumors
  • Causes few side effects and requires short recovery time
  • May be used to treat mesothelioma recurrence
  • Can also shrink large tumors to relieve symptoms

After cancer cells are killed by cryotherapy, they are gradually broken down by the immune system and reabsorbed, which may stimulate the immune system to hunt for other cancer cells elsewhere in the body. Healthy tissue may eventually regenerate in the treated area.

Because the cryoprobe only requires a small incision, cryotherapy can be administered in an interventional radiology room rather than an operating room, and the procedure usually takes less than an hour. Doctors have used cryotherapy to treat cancer for more than a century, and advances in modern technology have increased its application and made it one of the safest ways to treat localized tumors.

A 2021 clinical research study reported that cryotherapy could control thoracic tumors with a 77% success rate for two years. Future trials are aiming to increase effectiveness up to 90% for preventing local recurrence.

Cryotherapy for Mesothelioma

Doctors use cryotherapy to treat several types of cancer, and the effectiveness for mesothelioma has been tested.

In many cases, mesothelioma cells are too widely dispersed for a localized treatment such as cryotherapy to target them all. Some oncologists maintain that when mesothelioma has spread to more than two locations, it is highly likely that the patient has many other microscopic metastases that would prevent this therapy from effectively curing the cancer.

  • Many hospitals do not yet offer this treatment specifically for mesothelioma, but some facilities do provide it to mesothelioma patients upon a radiologist’s approval. The UCLA Medical Center is one such facility that has treated mesothelioma patients with cryotherapy.
  • Renowned mesothelioma surgical oncologist Dr. Robert Cameron is also investigating the procedure for mesothelioma and promotes cryotherapy research at the Pacific Mesothelioma Center.
Brigham and Women's Hospital and the Lung Institute at Baylor College of Medicine
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Three Ways Doctors Use Cryotherapy in Mesothelioma Treatment

Before Surgery

Before performing a major tumor-removing surgery, doctors often try to shrink tumors using other types of cancer therapy. The most common neoadjuvant therapies are chemotherapy and radiation, but some doctors have tested cryotherapy for this purpose in clinical trials.

After Surgery

This is the most common period during which cryotherapy is used. Though multimodal treatment plans are designed to remove all visible tumor growth through surgery and then kill remaining cancer cells with other therapies, mesothelioma tumors often grow back months or years later.

Rather than putting a patient through another aggressive surgery, doctors can treat small tumor reoccurrences with cryotherapy, which puts much less strain on the body. In one study from UCLA, Dr. Fereidoun Abtin was able to control up to 95% of local recurrences at one year.

Symptom Relief

Cryotherapy can relieve the pain associated with mesothelioma by shrinking tumors that press against the lungs and other organs. Cryotherapy is valuable as a palliative treatment option because it carries a very low risk of complications or side effects.

Side Effects and Complications

Unlike many other cancer treatments, this therapy causes very few side effects. It is less invasive than open surgery and requires a much shorter recovery time. Most patients are able to resume their normal schedules as soon as 24 hours after the procedure is completed.

Because treatment is delivered directly to the tumors, there is little risk the healthy surrounding tissues will be damaged. One 2007 study found 81% of patients with diseases such as lung cancer, mesothelioma and colorectal cancer were treated without any damage to adjacent tissues or organs.

Rare complications after cryotherapy for recurrent pleura mesothelioma patients include a hemorrhage, collapsed lung or fluid buildup near the lung.