Syringe against ultrasound imaging

New method delivers life-saving drugs to the brain—using sound waves

An emerging technique harnessing ultrasound may revolutionize treatment of fatal or hard-to-cure conditions, from cancer to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

Prior to focused ultrasound treatment, microbubbles are injected into the bloodstream. The low intensity focused ultrasound causes the microbubbles to vibrate, which leads to the temporary opening of the blood-brain barrier allowing for the delivery of chemotherapy to the tumor region.
Photograph by Kevin Van Paassen, Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre

At 6 a.m. on a spring morning in 2021, a jovial and spry 63-year-old named Michael Butler is wheeled into a special MRI suite at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto. The retired sales executive and motorcyclist is hooked up to an IV and dressed in a hospital gown. Aside from a trim white goatee, his head is freshly shorn—a style he’s sported since getting craniotomy surgery to remove as much as possible of an aggressive, plum-size brain tumor three months earlier.

Today he is part of a clinical trial testing a new method of delivering drugs directly into the brain, with a technique called focused ultrasound. Many experts believe this therapeutic technology will one day revolutionize brain medicine for a range of impossible or hard-to-cure conditions, from brain cancer to Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and ALS.

In Butler’s case, the procedure is designed to deliver drugs that will try to destroy any cancer cells left behind after his surgery. Complete removal by surgery wasn’t possible without severely damaging the rest of his brain. Focused ultrasound is his only chance to prolong life with glioblastoma, a catastrophic form of cancer that is incredibly difficult to treat.

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