Metal nanoshells are a class of nanoparticles with tunable optical resonances. In this article, an application of this technology to thermal ablative therapy for cancer is described. By tuning the nanoshells to strongly absorb light in the near infrared, where optical transmission through tissue is optimal, a distribution of nanoshells at depth in tissue can be used to deliver a therapeutic dose of heat by using moderately low exposures of extracorporeally applied near-infrared (NIR) light. Human breast carcinoma cells incubated with nanoshells in vitro were found to have undergone photothermally induced morbidity on exposure to NIR light (820 nm, 35 W/cm2), as determined by using a fluorescent viability stain. Cells without nanoshells displayed no loss in viability after the same periods and conditions of NIR illumination. Likewise, in vivo studies under magnetic resonance guidance revealed that exposure to low doses of NIR light (820 nm, 4 W/cm2) in solid tumors treated with metal nanoshells reached average maximum temperatures capable of inducing irreversible tissue damage (DeltaT = 37.4 +/- 6.6 degrees C) within 4-6 min. Controls treated without nanoshells demonstrated significantly lower average temperatures on exposure to NIR light (DeltaT < 10 degrees C). These findings demonstrated good correlation with histological findings. Tissues heated above the thermal damage threshold displayed coagulation, cell shrinkage, and loss of nuclear staining, which are indicators of irreversible thermal damage. Control tissues appeared undamaged.