Researchers at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, and The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust, both in the UK, have announced they are experimenting with a novel approach to treating cancer pain – using next-generation ultrasound to burn away the source of the pain.

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In medicine, the main use of ultrasound machines – such as this one – has been as a way of imaging the body.

In cases where cancer has metastasized to the bone, patients can experience intense bone pain that severely reduces their quality of life.

The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) team hopes that its new high-intensity focused ultrasound (HIFU) approach could provide an effective and non-invasive alternative for treating pain when radiation therapy is no longer an option.

HIFU works by concentrating ultrasound energy precisely on a target to destroy tissue with heat. The heat destroys the nerve tissue in the bone surrounding the tumor but leaves the neighboring tissue unharmed.

“Focused ultrasound is an exciting potential cancer treatment because of its ability to target tumors very precisely,” says study co-leader Gail ter Haar, professor of Therapeutic Ultrasound at ICR.

“The point onto which the ultrasound beam is focused gets very hot,” she explains, “but the surrounding tissue is left unharmed. It’s like using a magnifying glass in the sun to start a fire, where you need to form a sharp focal spot on the dry tinder.”

The precision targeting, meanwhile, comes from magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which identifies the area for treatment and tracks the therapy in real time.

Ultrasound’s main use in medicine until now has been as a way of imaging the body. The ICR researchers believe that by using ultrasound at a much higher power, as in HIFU, it provides a previously unexplored method of treating cancer.

Play the video below to find out more about the therapy.

HIFU is currently undergoing clinical trial and the ICR report that the first five patients have been fully treated with “encouraging reductions” in the pain caused by bone tumors they were experiencing.

The first patient to be treated in the clinical trial, Moira Rogers, describes her experience in a news release from ICR:

Fast facts about bone cancer

  • The main symptoms of bone cancer are a deep, nagging, permanent pain in the affected area and swelling
  • Groups most at risk for bone cancer include young children and old adults, people who have previously had radiation therapy and people who have a parent or sibling who has had bone cancer
  • Current treatments for bone cancer are surgery, chemotherapy or radiation therapy.

Find out more about bone cancer

“Being on this trial has meant a great deal to me. It has helped get the pain I was in under control and given me my quality of life back. Trials like these are extremely important and I am so glad I have been given the opportunity by my doctors at The Royal Marsden to be part of this ground breaking study.”

If the treatment is proved successful in this clinical trial, then further studies at ICR and Royal Marsden will follow, exploring the ability of HIFU to burn away local tumors at earlier stages of the disease, which may extend life for patients.

“We’re still learning how best to use focused ultrasound,” says Nandita deSouza, professor of Translational Imaging at ICR, “but we believe it has real potential for improving the quality of life of patients with advanced cancer.”

“Cancers that have spread to the bone can cause intense pain, and further radiotherapy may not be an option,” she adds. “It is early days in our trial, but we hope ultrasound therapy will prove effective at reducing the pain caused by bone metastases, and offer the chance for patients to live the final stages of their lives much more comfortably.”