focused ultrasound image

Doctors are using high-intensity focused ultrasound to treat major diseases, including cancer.

Most of us have seen an ultrasound image of a growing fetus. The use of sound waves to generate images in medicine is a widely employed technique that has been around for many years. More recently, however, doctors and researchers have been looking at ways to use high-intensity focused ultrasound to actually treat major diseases, including cancer.

High-intensity focused ultrasound generates tissue-killing levels of heat using narrowly targeted spots of ultrasonic waves, and the technique is being employed to treat brain tumors, tremors, uterine fibroids, breast and bone tumors, and many other conditions. There are no surgical incisions involved in the treatment, and other imaging techniques, like magnetic resonance (MR) imaging, are used to precisely guide treatment and measure temperature changes in the tissue.

“The beauty of this treatment is that it is a non-invasive way to effectively treat a wide range of medical issues,” explains Dr. Ferenc Jolesz, Co-Principal Investigator of the National Center for Image-Guided Therapy at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH). “It’s also very versatile, enabling us to reach certain areas that would not be possible through conventional surgery.”

MR-guided focused ultrasound was pioneered at BWH by Dr. Jolesz and his team, and a BWH research program in focused ultrasound surgery is being led by Dr. Nathan McDannold. Currently, studies include the use of focused ultrasound to treat brain tumors, chronic pain, and tremors through a closed skull. Using lower doses of focused ultrasound, BWH researchers are also working to open the blood-brain barrier, a shield of tightly packed cells in the blood vessels that protects the brain but often prevents medications from reaching the brain to treat tumors and neurologic diseases.

Dr. Clare Tempany, Co-Principal Investigator of the National Center for Image-Guided Therapy at BWH, was among the first to evaluate focused ultrasound treatment for uterine fibroids, now FDA approved for this purpose and performed at BWH. MR-guided focused ultrasound surgery is generally suitable for women with fibroids less than 10 cm in size, no extensive scarring from prior surgery, and no future plans for pregnancy. Other research areas for focused ultrasound include treatment for breast and bone tumors and cardiac arrhythmias.

“The opportunities for this technology really are endless,” says Dr. Jolesz.

– Jessica F

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