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Promising advances

Preliminary results show effectiveness of focused ultrasound technology

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Print this page by Robert Burke

What if it were possible to destroy a malignant tumor without surgery, chemotherapy or radiation? And to use the same noninvasive approach to treat epilepsy, or Parkinson’s Disease? A promising new technology to treating those conditions and others is being nurtured by a small Charlottesville-based foundation.

The treatment is called MR-guided focused ultrasound, and it is essentially using sound waves to destroy tissue. The Focused Ultrasound Foundation, a tax-exempt organization, created in 2006, is leading the drive to accelerate the development and adoption of this new approach.

In April came the most recent evidence of its potential uses. The University of Virginia Medical Center conducted a yearlong study using focused ultrasound to treat Essential Tremor, a movement disorder that affects about 10 million people in the U.S. Preliminary results from the study showed that focused ultrasound pulses delivered to a targeted spot in the brain —  without anesthesia —  reduced measurable symptoms by 92 percent.

Dr. Neal F. Kassell, the founder and chairman of the foundation, is a professor of neurosurgery at U.Va.  and co-chaired the neurosurgery department there for 22 years. The foundation, he says, is “a unique medical research, education and advocacy organization. The vision is to improve the lives of millions of people around the world with serious medical disorders.”

The foundation hopes to accomplish this goal by advancing the adoption of focused ultrasound technology, which Kassell says is still in the early stages of development. Its potential applications are still being explored and tested. He compares the technology to magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), now a universally adopted diagnostic tool. Focused ultrasound “has the potential to revolutionize therapy to the same degree that MRI has revolutionized diagnosis.”

The foundation has raised more than $35 million, Kassell says, and continues to work with philanthropic groups and private-sector firms interested in applying the technology. So far, the Food and Drug Administration has approved focused ultrasound for treating uterine fibroids. Other potential treatments, if approved, could include cancer of the breast, prostate and liver, as well as kidney and pancreatic cancers, blood clots or strokes. Details of the current research efforts are on the foundation’s website at

The foundation’s goal “is totally patient-centric. We’re not concerned about a company making a profit,” he says. “But if you want to make progress, you need to have all the stakeholders get aligned. So one of the things the foundation does is try and promote collaboration” among companies, academia and sources of funding, both public and private. “There’s no way that any one party could accomplish what we set out to do.” 

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