Gov. Ralph Northam (right) and Del. David J. Toscano, D-Charlottesville, attended a meeting at the Focused Ultrasound Foundation on June 5. Credit: Credit: Josh Mandell, Charlottesville Tomorrow

Gov. Ralph Northam visited the Focused Ultrasound Foundation on June 5 to discuss the impact of the state’s investment in this innovative technology.

Dr. Neal Kassell, founder and chairman of the foundation, gave a presentation about the evolution of focused ultrasound. Foundation Board members, health industry leaders, foundation supporters and media representatives were also in attendance. 

Since 2008, state funding has helped the field of focus ultrasound to grow at an unanticipated rate.  

“A decade ago, there were three ways in which focused ultrasound could interact with tissue,” said Kassell. “Now there are 18.” 

Focused ultrasound treats medical disorders by concentrating multiple intersecting beams of ultrasonic energy on diseased tissue. Magnetic resonance imaging or ultrasound imaging targets the tissue, guides the treatment and confirms its effectiveness. 

Kassell compared focused ultrasound to using a magnifying glass to focus beams of sunlight on a leaf. Just as sunlight gradually burns a hole on a single point on the leaf, intersecting ultrasonic beams can destroy and modify tissues in the human body.

Although it is still in its early stages, focused ultrasound has the potential to transform the treatment of numerous medical disorders. Kassell said it enables non-invasive treatments that result in minimal discomfort and few complications, significantly decreasing recovery time. 

Focused ultrasound has been used to successfully treat numerous medical conditions, including essential tremor, Parkinson’s disease, uterine fibroids, pelvic tumors and breast cancer. 

Founded in Charlottesville in 2006, the Focused Ultrasound Foundation formed a research partnership in 2009 with the University of Virginia, where Kassell previously served as co-chairman of the Department of Neurosurgery. 

Together, the foundation and Dr. Jeff Elias, a neurosurgeon at UVa, pioneered the treatment of essential tremor, a neurological disorder. Kassel said this treatment validated the technology, making it the tipping point in the evolution of focused ultrasound. 

Focused ultrasound can save patients thousands of dollars in treatment costs as well. Kassell said the best treatment for Parkinson’s disease can cost between $60,000 and $100,000, while treatment using focused ultrasound costs only $20,000.

Kassell said focused ultrasound could eventually take the place of more invasive and expensive treatments, such as surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. 

However, Kassell warned that focused ultrasound is not a magic cure.

“The problem is that the evolution of a new device from idea to widespread utilization is a glacial progress,” explained Kassell. “It takes decades.”

To accelerate the development and adoption of focused ultrasound, the foundation collaborates with multiple organizations, including governmental agencies, to organize and conduct research.

The foundation’s next goal is to successfully use focused ultrasound for cancer treatment and immunotherapy. It also seeks to use ultrasound to cure diseases throughout the entire brain like glioblastoma, the lethal form of brain cancer that U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., currently suffers from. 

Focused ultrasound mainly has been used to cure diseases in the center of the brain. However, there is a possibility it could open the blood-brain barrier, which separates blood and fluid between the brain and central nervous system, and significantly improve drug delivery for brain cancer. 

“We are on the cusp of finding cures for a lot of these disorders,” Northam said during a question and answer session following Kassell’s presentation. “Let’s bring that to Virginia.”

Northam, a former pediatric neurologist, met Kassell in the late 1980s during his residency at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. 

“This is the future of healthcare,” said Northam. “We need to collect data.”

Northam said he plans to continue Virginia’s support of the foundation, which has received $11 million in state funding under several governors.

“We have to invest; we are competing with other states and countries,” Northam said.

Kassell said 550 organizations are working with focused ultrasound around the world. 

Northam said he wants to not only improve economic development but also expand Virginia’s budget for higher education to make it more affordable. He said investment in education will draw more scientists, research grants and businesses to Virginia.

“It’s a win-win,” Northam said.