Sound waves used to tackle prostate cancer

Lawrence McGinty

Former Science and Medical Editor

Prostate cancer cells Credit: Science photo library

Cancer? Burn it out! The Romans used to do it.

And now, with a little high-tech help, doctors at University College Hospital in London are doing it.

They're using a light beam of ultrasound to heat up cancer cells in an area as big as a grain of rice to 80 degrees, which destroys them.

Why? Because by focussing on such a small area, they can cut down on damage to healthy tissues and so reduce side-effects.

And they're a big problem for the 37,000 men treated for prostate cancer every year.

Standard treatment - surgery or radiotherapy - leaves a lot on men with serious and embarrassing side effects:

  • Up to 25 per cent are incontinent

  • Up to 75 per cent can't get an erection

  • Up to 10 per cent have problems like diarrhoea

  • Only 50 per cent manage to avoid one of those three

Prostate cancer is the most common cancer among men Credit: .

But in a new trial, funded by the Medical Research Council, 12 months after treatment, none of the 41 men in the trial had incontinence of urine. And, just 1-in-10 suffered from poor erections. The majority of men (95 per cent) were also cancer-free after a year.

Men have a 9-in-10 chance of avoiding all three side-effects.

They'll need a bigger trial to prove that the ultrasound therapy is better than existing treatments, but it's promising.