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Jan. 27, 2017: IEEE Computing Now

The "Sound" of New Medical Treatments

A few years ago, while visiting the University of Virginia, my friend Dr. Alan Matsumoto introduced me to some new medical technology being investigated to treat uterine fibroids (benign tumors of the uterus) with focused ultrasound therapy and thus avoid the need for hysterectomy and preservation of the patient's fertility.

Since then, the indications and use of this potentially transformative therapy has continued to grow internationally and will hopefully enter the mainstream of medicine within the next 5-10 years. Focused ultrasound is a new, revolutionary non-invasive therapeutic technology that has the potential to transform the treatment of a variety of serious medical disorders (brain tumors, prostate cancer, essential tremor), improve outcomes, and decrease the cost of care. It could become an alternative to, or complement for, traditional surgery, radiation therapy, and drug delivery and potentially result in fewer complications, such as damage to normal tissue, infection, hemorrhage, and pain.

Focused ultrasound utilizes intersecting beams of high-frequency sound concentrated accurately and precisely on tissue deep in the body, much as sunlight passing through a magnifying glass can be focused to burn a hole in a leaf. At the point where the beams converge, the ultrasound energy induces a variety of biological effects while surrounding structures and tissues remain undamaged. Magnetic resonance (MRI) or ultrasound imaging is used to identify, guide, and control the treatment in real time.

A variety of effects at the focal point can be adjusted for a variety of disorders, i.e., thermal ablation (precise heating and destruction of tissue); focal drug delivery (delivery of very high concentrations of drugs precisely where they are needed); blood-brain barrier opening (temporary access of drugs to reach the brain); immunomodulation (stimulation of immune response to allow the body to fight cancer); neuromodulation (reversible stimulation or inhibition of cells in the brain and nervous system); radiation sensitization (sensitizing tumors to effects of radiation allowing use of lower dose to kill cancer cells); and stem cell delivery (specific "homing" of stem cells to targeted tissue). Dr. Neal Kassel, a prominent neurosurgeon, has presented with great enthusiasm the fact that focused ultrasound therapy could one day alleviate the need for conventional brain surgery and no longer need to drill through skulls to make repairs to brains.

Focused ultrasound therapy is still in its early stages, still experimental, but there is now enough research to date to be optimistic. Tumors of the brain, breast, prostate, pancreas, liver, kidneys, and bones could be treated on an out-patient basis. Imagine the day when a man with prostate cancer undergoing focused ultrasound therapy, then drives himself back to the office for a few hours and later goes home to celebrate his wedding anniversary with his wife, sharing a champagne toast to growing old together.

Around the world, 50,000 men with prostate cancer have been treated with focused ultrasound. Over 22,000 women with uterine fibroids have been treated, thus avoiding hysterectomies and infertility. Clinical trials for tumors of the brain, breast, pancreas and liver, as well as Parkinson's disease, arthritis, and hypertension are moving forward at over 225 research sites around the world.

Undoubtedly, this new technology has the potential to save many lives and I would encourage those that want to learn more to visit www.fusfoundation.org and read John Grisham's non-legal thriller book, The Tumor.

Return to: 2017 Feature Stories