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The Making of Medicine

Focused Ultrasound and Breast Cancer: The 1st Trial of Its Kind

In the focused ultrasound trials I’ve told you about previously, the point has been to use the scalpel-free surgery to destroy tissue. Our latest trial — for metastatic breast cancer — puts an interesting twist on that.

In this trial, the focused ultrasound isn’t used in an attempt to burn away all the breast cancer cells, as you might expect. Instead, it’s used to destroy only a portion of the primary tumor in trial participants whose cancer has spread elsewhere in the body. The goal, you see, is to help the body recognize cancer cells that would normally go ignored by the immune system. Basically, the lead investigators, Dr. Patrick Dillon and Dr. David Brenin, are hoping the focused ultrasound will “unmask” the cancer cells so that the immune system will attack and kill them.

In addition to the focused ultrasound, study participants will be given an immunotherapy drug to see if the drug, pembrolizumab, can stop the cancer cells from blocking the immune response. The researchers will evaluate what effects this combo has on both the primary tumor and on the other cancer sites. “The hope,” Dr. Brenin said, “is to leverage the combination of both treatments to gain a greater immune response than we would have individually.”

The trial is believed to be the first in the world to pair focused ultrasound with immunotherapy, and the researchers intend to test the approach in 15 women. They expect it will take a year or so to complete the testing, and they will publish their findings after that. I’ll keep you posted.

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