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First In The World, Seattle Surgeon Operates On Metastatic Brain Tumor With Sound

Gabriel Spitzer
Dr. David Newell, co-founder of the Swedish Neuroscience Institute, with a machine that delivers focused ultrasound. Doctors at Swedish were the first in the world to treat a metastatic brain tumor patient with the technology last week.

Surgeons at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle treated a patient for metastatic brain cancer last week with sound in what is believed to be the first procedure of its kind in the world.

Besides drugs, there used to be basically one tool for attacking attack brain cancer: a knife. Scientists have been developing less and less invasive ways to get at brain tumors, and now an early-stage trialat Swedish Neuroscience Institute has shown surgeons can treat a metastatic tumor with high-frequency sound beamed painlessly through the skull.

Neurosurgeon Stephan Monteith, who performed the procedure along with neurosurgeon Charles Cobbs, explained that the patient was wheeled into an MRI machine, wearing a helmet that directs more than a thousand ultrasound beams into the patient’s head. The patient was awake throughout.

“The energy does create some warmth and so there's a warm feeling as the ultrasound beams travel through the scalp. The brain itself doesn’t feel any pain or anything like that,” Monteith said, having stepped briefly out of another brain surgery to discuss the earlier procedure.

Converging Deep In The Brain

Deep inside the brain, all the beams converge on an exact point, and generate enough heat to kill the tumor cells. In this way the ultrasound burns out the tumor, bit by bit. Clinicians in Switzerland used the procedure successfully earlier this year to treat a primary brain tumor. This week’s surgery at Swedish was the first to bring it to bear on a metastatic brain tumor, meaning cancer that originated in another part of the body.

Focused ultrasound is similar in some ways to certain types of radiation treatment. But like traditional surgery, radiation comes with risk. Too high a cumulative dose of radiation can damage cells and even increase the risk for additional cancers, so you cannot keep doing it over and over again until you get results.

“Focused ultrasound offers potentially the ability to treat patients that have either had surgery or radiation and don’t have any other options left for a tumor that may have grown through those procedures,” Monteith said.

Monteith said he doesn’t know yet how much of his patient’s tumor he got, but he showed that in this case, the technique worked and was done safely. That is what this early study is all about, which they plan to expand down the line.

‘It’s Like Star Trek’

But there is already a lot of excitement about the technology’s potential. Technician Jim Anderson is supervisor of CT and MRI at Swedish Medical Center’s Cherry Hill campus.

“We can do the treatments without being invasive. I think it’s pretty amazing. I mean it’s like Star Trek here today,” he said.

Swedish is one of just two groups in the country involved in these clinical trials. They are also further along in studying focused ultrasound as a therapy for other conditions, including Parkinson’s disease.

Gabriel Spitzer is a former KNKX reporter, producer and host who covered science and health and worked on the show Sound Effect.