A new technique successfully fried up to 75 percent of tumors using ultrasound

And the same technique is being tested on humans in the U.S. and Europe.
Brad Bergan
The noninvasive device, which focuses ultrasound at the target.Marcin Szczepanski / Michigan Engineering

We just took a bite out of cancer.

With ultrasound waves.

Scientists from the University of Michigan used a new technique to whittle away at tumors inside rats — by employing noninvasive ultrasound waves, approaching the threshold of a major breakthrough for cancer liver patients, according to a new study published in the journal Cancers.

And, with this technique also currently undergoing human tests in the U.S. and Europe, it could be just a matter of time before it's publicly available.

The new ultrasound method eliminates up to 75 percent of tumors

Early tests suggested that the sound waves successfully decimated up to 75 percent of liver tumor material in the rat bodies, which enabled the little critters' immune systems to jump into action and beat the leftover cancerous tissues out of existence, preventing reemergence.

"Even if we don't target the entire tumor, we can still cause the tumor to regress and also reduce the risk of future metastasis," said Professor Zhen Xu of UM's biomedical engineering dept., who is also a corresponding author of the study, in a blog post from the university.

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The new treatment is called "histotripsy," and it noninvasively directs ultrasound waves so that the target tissue is mechanically destroyed — and with millimeter precision. This novel technique is presently being deployed in a human liver cancer trial in both the U.S. and Europe.

This is significant because a great number of clinical situations preclude direct (read: invasive) interventions, because of the size of the tumor, its location, or stage. But this new study looked at reducing only a portion of the cancerous bodies, leaving behind much of the tumor intact. This method also enabled the team of UM researchers to exhibit the effectiveness of the novel approach in less than ideal conditions.

Zhen Xu (left) and Tejaswi Worlikar (right) discuss the histotripsy ultrasound array transducer. Source: Marcin Szczepanski / Michigan Engineering

Treating cancer with ultrasound waves avoids common side effects

"Histotripsy is a promising option that can overcome the limitations of currently available ablation modalities and provide safe and effective noninvasive liver tumor ablation," said a doctoral student in UM's biomedical engineering department, Tejaswi Worlikar, in the blog post.

"We hope that our learnings from this study will motivate future preclinical and clinical histotripsy investigations toward the ultimate goal of clinical adoption of histotripsy treatment for liver cancer patients," added Worlikar. Liver cancer is one of the top 10 causes of cancer-related deaths throughout the world — one that, even with several treatments on the table, nevertheless is a grim diagnosis to bear, with survival rates holding at less than 18 percent in the United States.

But by using ultrasound, the team from UM has found a way to deliver microsecond-length "acoustic cavitation", with no adverse side effects like chemotherapy and radiation poisoning. Cancer has had a long, dark, and stubborn history in the human race, but it seems every month we take a step closer to kicking it out of our lives, for good.