Focused ultrasound approach shows ‘substantial potential’ for treating deadly brain tumor

A powerful combination of focused ultrasound and a novel therapeutic drug is earning praise as a new treatment against glioblastoma, the deadliest type of brain tumor, as well as other lethal cancers.

Researchers at the University of Virginia School of Medicine are testing the early concept in cell samples and have successfully reduced the total number of living cancer cells by nearly 50%, they report in the Journal of Neuro-Oncology. With more testing, they believe the technique may be used to treat cancers in other sensitive areas of the body, such as the lungs, breasts and skin. 

"Sonodynamic therapy with focused ultrasound offers a new therapeutic approach to treating patients with malignant brain tumors," UVA Health neurosurgeon Jason Sheehan, MD, PhD, said in a statement. "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."

Essentially, once the drug reaches the diseased cells, they become sensitized to the sound waves produced via focused ultrasound. Using the modality, clinicians deliver small bubbles inside of these cells, killing them off. 

Typically, focused ultrasound is used to create small points of heat inside the body to burn away damaging cells. This new method, however, kills cancer without generating heat.

Sheehan and colleagues tested their sonosensitizing approach in both rat and human cell samples. The drug-ultrasound combination proved to be more effective than using either in isolation. Used alone, the drug reduced the number of living cancer cells by 5%, whereas focused ultrasound achieved a 16% reduction. Together, they decreased the number of diseased cells by 47%.

These early tests are all part of a wider effort at UVA to explore focused ultrasound’s effectiveness against multiple disease types, including breast cancer and epilepsy.

"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."