Ultrasound: A new frontier in cancer treatment?

Alok Jha

Former Science Correspondent

The technique is called High Intensity Focused Ultrasound (HIFU) Credit: ITV News

Doctors in London have started trials of an experimental therapy that might one day become a new way to destroy cancers.

By using powerful ultrasound waves, they can burn away tissues in the body - and one day, tumours - without leading to side-effects in the patient.

The technique is called High Intensity Focused Ultrasound (HIFU), which concentrates high-power sound waves to create heat in the same way that a magnifying glass can concentrate sunlight to burn paper.

That heat can be targeted into the body to burn away tissue where required.

Ultrasound is more familiar from medical imaging - it is used in pregnancy scans, for example. In HIFU, doctors use an ultrasound beam that is 10,000 times more powerful.

The research is still at an early stage but, if it gets through further trials, HIFU could widen a doctor's arsenal to treat and destroy tumours.

So far in the clinical trial at the Institute for Cancer Research and Royal Marsden Hospital in London, five patients have received the ultrasound treatment to help deal with the intense pain that occurs when their cancers have spread to their bones.

The Royal Marsden Hospital has the only combined MRI and ultrasound facility in the UK being used for cancer. Credit: ITV News

The HIFU was used to burn away the nerve endings on their bones where they felt the most pain and, so far, all of them have shown good results.

Doctors can identify where to point the focused sound wave and track the treatment in real time using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The Royal Marsden Hospital has the only combined MRI and ultrasound facility in the UK being used for cancer.

ITV News' Science Correspondent Alok Jha has this exclusive report.

Professor Gail ter Haar will lead the clinical trial with Professor Nandita deSouza, a consultant radiologist at the Royal Marsden Hospital who said while the team was still learning how best to use focused ultrasound, they believe it has "real potential" for improving quality of life for patients with advanced cancer.

The team believes it has 'real potential' for improving quality of life for patients with advanced cancer. Credit: ITV News

Moira Rogers was the first patient to undergo the treatment in the clinical trial at the Royal Marsden. She was diagnosed with breast cancer a year ago which then moved to other parts of her body and into bones in her arm, which caused her intense pain.

HIFU has a long way to go before it could be used routinely in the clinic, and it will not work for all types of cancer. But doctors hope that it could one day sit alongside established approaches to tackling tumours - surgery, drugs and radiation.

Experts say they are 'encouraged' by the research Credit: ITV News

Martin Ledwick, Cancer Research UK’s head cancer information nurse, said he was "encouraged" by the research.

For patient information on HIFU, visit the Cancer Research website.