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Focused ultrasound shows early promise in glioblastoma brain tumours

Researchers are pioneering a promising use of focused ultrasound against glioblastoma, an aggressive brain tumour.

This innovative focused ultrasound approach could revolutionise treatment for glioblastomas and other cancers that are difficult to treat.

Glioblastomas are the most common malignant brain tumours in adults, and there is a shortage of effective treatments for this aggressive cancer.

The technique targets cancer cells with a drug that sensitizes them to sound waves, then blasts the cells with focused ultrasound. These sound waves create tiny bubbles inside the cancer cells that kill them.

To evaluate the potential of their new approach, the University of Virginia (UVA) researchers looked at its effects on cell samples. They also evaluated the benefits of the drug 5-ALA, and focused ultrasound individually, and found that the pairing of the two was the most effective approach.

Using 5-ALA, or ‘The Pink Drink’, reduced the number of viable cancer cells by 5%. Focused ultrasound reduced the cells by 16%. However, combining the two led to a total reduction of 47%.

“Focused ultrasound has the potential to improve outcomes for patients with complex brain tumors and other neurosurgical pathologies,” UVA Health neurosurgeon Jason Sheehan, MD, PhD said. “We may be at the tip of the iceberg in terms of intracranial indications for focused ultrasound.”

Usually, applications of focused ultrasound use technology to create small points of heat inside the body to burn away or damage harmful cells. Sheehan’s approach is notably different in that it destroys cancer cells without using heat.

The work is in its earliest phases, with researchers testing the concept on cell samples currently. But the initial results suggest the approach has “substantial potential for treatment of malignant brain tumours and other challenging oncology indications,” 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.

Sheehan is also launching a separate glioblastoma clinical trial in people using a focused ultrasound approach.

This study will test the technology’s potential to open the brain’s protective barrier so that doctors can deliver treatments to the tumour that would normally be impossible.

“Sonodynamic therapy with focused ultrasound offers a new therapeutic approach to treating patients with malignant brain tumors,” said Sheehan. “This approach combines two approved options, 5-ALA and focused ultrasound, to produce a powerful tumoricidal effect on several different types of glioblastomas.”