Foundation promotes use of technology combining magnetic resonance, ultrasound

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by Robert Burke

There is a new weapon for fighting cancer so remarkable that University of Virginia neurosurgeon Dr. Neal Kassell calls it “potentially the most important therapeutic advancement since the invention of the scalpel.” The only problem, he says, is that not enough doctors are using it.

It is called magnetic resonance-guided focused ultrasound surgery, or MRgFUS. By combining the power of high-intensity ultrasound — which can heat and destroy tissue — with magnetic-resonance imaging’s ability to direct the ultrasound beam to exactly the right spot, it can be used to treat a variety of tumors such as in the breast, brain, liver, uterus or prostate. Plus, it can dissolve blood clots and deliver drugs in high concentrations. “This could replace a lot of surgery, it could replace the vast majority of radiation therapy and it could be a way to revolutionize drug-delivery therapy,” says Kassell.

Today, only about 60 facilities worldwide, including 31 in the U.S., are involved in this technology. A number of them are only doing research. The closest one to Virginia providing treatment is Duke University.

In October 2006, Kassell created the Focused Ultrasound Surgery Foundation, based in Charlottesville, with hopes of increasing that number. The only reason the foundation is based in Charlottesville is because of Kassell, who joined the university faculty in 1984. “Our goal is to take what could take 30 years for something to achieve mainstream adoption and compress it to 10 years,” he says.

The foundation has already raised about $18 million from private, corporate and foundation sources and has begun funding fellowships and research. Grant recipients include researchers at Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston, the University of Utah Department of Biomedical Engineering and U.Va. biomedical engineering professor Richard Price, who’s trying to develop a way to deliver chemotherapy drugs to brain tumors and use high-intensity focused ultrasound (HIFU) to release the medicines. Price’s team uses drug-carrying nanoparticles that “are injected into the blood stream, they flow into the tumor, and then are ‘activated’ only in the tumor by HIFU,” he says. “I think the potential of the technology is tremendous.”

Other grant recipients are studying ways to better measure the heat generated by ultrasound, and how to use MRgFUS to fight prostate cancer. Kassell says that this year the foundation plans to provide research awards of about $2 million, which equates to about 20 one-year awards of $100,000 each. The foundation also will offer up to 10 fellowships, at $100,000 each.

Kassell compares the current state of MRgFUS to where magnetic-resonance imaging, or MRI, was 30 years ago, when few doctors or hospitals had either the equipment or experience. “There’s a whole series of things that you need to do to get things adopted, and the foundation exists to fill in the white spaces in between what industry, the government, other foundations, academia and venture capital do,” he says.

Among those activities are organizing the first international symposium focused on the technology, to be held the first week in October in Washington. The foundation, which has just a handful of employees, also hopes to launch other efforts, such as creating a Focused Ultrasound Surgery Society, starting a patient support organization and establishing standards for training surgeons, radiation oncologists and other specialists. Kassell notes that the foundation is unusual in that it’s focused on a technology, rather than an illness, which underscores its potential uses in a wide range of medical therapies, he says. “There’s nobody whose life won’t be touched by this.”

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