The Sound of Progress

Focused sound waves could one day eliminate the need for invasive surgery.

     A groundbreaking clinical trial at the University of Virginia Health System has found that a scalpel-free surgery known as focused ultrasound is as effective in the treatment of essential tremor (a progressive neurological disorder) as traditional surgery. “In the past, to kill those abnormal cells that were causing the shaking, we would make an incision in the scalp, drill a hole in the head, insert a wire and heat it up,” says Dr. Neal F. Kassell, founder and chairman of the Charlottesville-based Focused Ultrasound Foundation and professor of neurosurgery at the University of Virginia. “With this non-invasive method, we avoid surgery and the side effects of surgery, such as the risk of infection.”

     In the procedure, high-frequency sound waves are guided by magnetic resonance and used to heat a tiny area of troublesome brain tissue enough to kill it. “It’s analogous to using a magnifying glass to focus a beam of light on a point and burn a hole in a leaf,” says Kassell, “but it uses multiple points of ultrasound energy instead.”

     All 15 participants in UVA’s trial, conducted throughout 2011, saw a substantial reduction in their involuntary shaking after undergoing the experimental procedure using focused ultrasound, and the patients were able to leave the hospital the next day. The treatment will undergo further trials, including one to test its effectiveness in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease, a close cousin of essential tremor. Once proven successful, the applications of focused ultrasound have the potential to treat many kinds of diseases by becoming the ultimate form of non-invasive surgery, to destroy tumors without harming other organs, for example, or to dissolve blood clots and restore blood flow.

     The Focused Ultrasound Foundation is governed by an all-star board, including multiple M.D.s sitting alongside famous names like best-selling author John Grisham. “But this is not a marquee board,” insists Kassell. “Nobody pays to get on this board, there’s no social cache; it’s a corporate governance board. And we have a lot of horsepower. Our little organization could go to toe to toe with any Fortune 500 company.”

     With the board’s backing, Kassell believes the non-invasive focused ultrasound treatment could dramatically improve countless lives. “It’s in the early stages,” cautions Kassell, “like magnetic resonance imaging was 25 to 30 years ago. But just as MRIs revolutionized diagnosis, focused ultrasound has the potential to revolutionize the treatment of a whole host of medical disorders.” FusFoundation.org


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