A revolutionary new ultrasonic treatment for liver and kidney cancer offers a surgery-free procedure for patients in the UK.

Ultrasound is high frequency sound beyond the range of human hearing and has been employed in a variety of ways in the medical field including, in diagnostics to look inside the body and observe a growing foetus, in physiotherapy as a tool to aid the rejuvenation of muscles and pain control, and now, in the treatment of tumours.

Through research by Professor Tim Mason, Head of Sonochemistry at Coventry University alongside Chinese researchers at the Chongqing Medical University made possible by trials at Churchill hospital in Oxford the procedures are now a reality. The new discovery proves that a type of focused ultrasound can now be used to treat specific tumours.

Tim, who has been involved in sonochemistry research for the past 25 years, explains that the key to this new type of ultrasonic cancer treatment is the ability to focus low energy ultrasound beams to a small, high energy target in a tumour inside the body.

Tim says:

"It works because the individual beams are harmless but the focus heats up and kills the cancerous cells in a procedure known as High Intensity Focused Ultrasound (HIFU). Patients lay over a small bath of water in which there are two concentric ultrasound transducers. One transmits a low-power diagnostic beam, allowing the doctor to visualise the tumour and guide the treatment; the other produces the focussed beam."

HIFU is useful to treat a single tumour or part of a large tumour but cannot be used to treat widespread cancers. It is therefore not suitable for people with cancer which has spread to more than one place in their body. However one of the most positive things about the results of this research is the direct effect this new treatment is having on patients. Unlike many treatments for cancerous tumours, HIFU has been proven to leave the patient practically unscathed.

Tim explains:

"Feedback from UK patients who have been successfully treated using the new technology has been extremely positive, with no reports of pain, side-effects or marking on the body. Patients are also often able to return home the next day. Follow-up MRI scans have shown the tumours to be dead and even beginning to shrink"

Research results from China indicate the success of HIFU treatments for bone and breast cancer which indicate promising developments for the future.

Sonochemistry Applied Research Centre

The Sonochemistry Centre was established in 1994. It retains its primary aim of securing and maintaining a position of international excellence in a variety of applications of power ultrasound in chemistry and processing technologies. The Centre is a national and international resource base for topics related to power ultrasound and provides expertise on applications of sonochemistry to academic institutions, companies and government organisations.

The research being carried out at Coventry University is a result of Tim's attendance to the fifth meeting of the European Society of Sonochemistry in Cambridge in 1996 where a group of Chinese researchers presented work on the development of an operational HIFU system. In a subsequent visit to Chongqing Medical University in 1999 Tim saw the operating theatre instrument in action. A few years later it was brought to the UK where it has been undergoing trials at the Churchill hospital in Oxford on the effectiveness of HIFU on kidney and liver cancers which have now been completed.

Coventry University, UK