An innovative use of focused ultrasound being pioneered at the University of Virginia School of Medicine is showing promise against glioblastoma, the deadliest brain tumor, and could prove useful against other difficult-to-treat cancers.
The technique hits cancer cells with a drug that sensitizes them to sound waves, then blasts them with focused ultrasound. The sound waves create tiny bubbles inside the cancer cells, causing them to die.
The work is early, with researchers testing the concept on cell samples in lab dishes. But their results suggest the technique has "substantial potential for treatment of malignant brain tumors and other challenging oncology indications," such as lung cancer, breast cancer and melanoma, the researchers report in a new scientific paper. They predict the technique will be particularly useful in treating cancers in sensitive parts of the body that are difficult to access.
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"Sonodynamic therapy with focused ultrasound offers a new therapeutic approach to treating patients with malignant brain tumors," said UVA Health neurosurgeon Jason Sheehan, MD, PhD. "This approach combines two approved options, [the drug] 5-ALA and focused ultrasound, to produce a powerful tumoricidal effect on several different types of glioblastomas."
Glioblastomas are the most common malignant brain tumors in adults. They are inevitably fatal, typically within 12 to 18 months of diagnosis. The shortage of effective treatments for this aggressive cancer means new approaches are needed desperately.
To evaluate the potential of their new focused ultrasound technique, the UVA researchers looked at its effects on both rat and human cell samples. They examined the benefits of the "sonosensitizing" drug, 5-ALA, and focused ultrasound individually and in combination, and they found that the pairing was far more effective than either alone. The drug reduced the number of viable cancer cells by 5%, while focused ultrasound reduced it by 16%. Together, the reduction was 47%.
"Focused ultrasound has the potential to improve outcomes for patients with complex brain tumors and other neurosurgical pathologies," Sheehan said. "We may be at the tip of the iceberg in terms of intracranial indications for focused ultrasound."
Busting Cancer With Bubbles
Many applications of focused ultrasound rely on the technology's ability to create tiny points of heat inside the body to burn away harmful cells, or to damage cells enough to provoke an immune response. Sheehan's approach is notable in that it takes another tack, destroying cancer cells without generating heat.