Treating Brain Cancer with Focused Ultrasound Plus Specialized Drug

The excitement is spreading about MRI-guided Focused Ultrasound (MRgFUS), a breakthrough treatment for controlling essential tremor (ET). This noninvasive, outpatient procedure is a great blessing for people with hand tremors that are considered unresponsive to medication.

Instead, MRgFUS stops tremors by using sound waves, or sonic energy, to deaden a tiny area in the thalamus. This interrupts abnormal tremor signals so they never reach the hands. This is the technology we use at Sperling Neurosurgery Associates, and our patients are thrilled with the results.

The appeal of Focused Ultrasound

What’s so appealing about Focused Ultrasound? First and foremost, regaining the normal use of the treated hand is a dream come true. As if that weren’t appealing enough, a number of features sets MRgFUS apart from an invasive neurosurgery called Deep Brain Stimulation and makes it desirable:

  • No incision
  • No holes drilled in the skull
  • Outpatient
  • No risk of post-surgery infection or bleeding in the brain
  • No hardware or wires
  • No exposure to radiation
  • Instant and durable results

It’s no wonder, then, that the number of MRgFUS patients is growing, and the number of centers offering this miraculous treatment is increasing.

Not just for ET

By now, most people who know about MRgFUS also know that it is also used to treat hand tremors due to Parkinson’s disease. In addition, the list of neurological conditions that are amenable to MRgFUS is expanding to include clinical trials in Alzheimer’s disease, epilepsy, pain, and psychiatric conditions like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and depression. In each case, the ultrasound energy takes the place of a scalpel to intervene directly in an area of the brain that may be a source of the condition. Focused Ultrasound is also being tested for use as a gateway to open the blood brain barrier for targeted delivery of Alzheimer’s drugs, and chemotherapy for a deadly brain cancer called glioblastoma.

A new method for treating glioblastoma

Currently, there is no combination of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy that can cure glioblastoma. However, researchers at the University of Virginia School of Medicine are now exploring the safety and feasibility of pairing Focused Ultrasound with a unique drug that activates tumor sensitivity to sound waves.

When the drug, called 5-ALA, is absorbed by tumor cells, the ultrasound energy is focused on the tumor, passing harmlessly through the skull and intervening brain tissues. The effect is powerful. As reported by a scientific news article, “The ultrasound creates bubbles inside the tumor cells, killing them. Both the drug and the focused ultrasound can kill some tumor cells on their own, 5 percent and 16 percent, respectively. Together, though, they can kill 47 percent.”[i]

No incisions, no holes drilled in the skull, no radiation, no chemotherapy, not even heat—yet nearly 50% of tumor cells are destroyed! While these are very early tests without longer term results, they are very promising. This experimental brain cancer treatment may have implications for treating other cancers as well as glioblastoma.

The word about pioneering treatments for relatively rare cancers can’t be expected to travel as quickly or widely as news that is reaching the millions of people with ET. Nonetheless, the benefits of combining Focused Ultrasound with 5-ALA will be as miraculous as future applications for cancer treatment are developed.

This is news traveling at the speed of soundwaves, and it’s worth hearing.

NOTE: This content is solely for purposes of information and does not substitute for diagnostic or medical advice. Talk to your doctor if you are experiencing pelvic pain, or have any other health concerns or questions of a personal medical nature.

[i] Palmer, Whitney J. “Focused Ultrasound Could Offer New Approach to Treating Deadly Brain Tumor.” Diagnostic Imaging, Jun 23, 2020.


About Dr. Dan Sperling

Dan Sperling, MD, DABR, is a board certified radiologist who is globally recognized as a leader in multiparametric MRI for the detection and diagnosis of a range of disease conditions. As Medical Director of the Sperling Prostate Center, Sperling Medical Group and Sperling Neurosurgery Associates, he and his team are on the leading edge of significant change in medical practice. He is the co-author of the new patient book Redefining Prostate Cancer, and is a contributing author on over 25 published studies. For more information, contact the Sperling Neurosurgery Associates.

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