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The Making of Medicine

Using Sound to Open the Brain to New Treatments

Our Richard J. Price, PhD, of UVA’s Department of Biomedical Engineering, has amazing new research out that speaks to the potential of focused sound waves to allow us to administer treatments to the brain in a way never before possible.

This could be a major step forward in our battle against neurological diseases. The brain has a natural “blood-brain barrier” that keeps out harmful pathogens, but  it also keeps out many drugs we’d like to use to treat brain tumors and diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

Price is pioneering the use of focused ultrasound to briefly open small sections of the BBB, as it’s called, in a very precise way. He then would use the focused sound waves to assist in the delivery of treatments exactly where they’re needed.

“With MRI, we can look at the target, whether it’s a brain tumor or maybe it’s a part of the brain we want to do gene therapy on, and we can select it – we can actually make a treatment plan and say we only want to open the [blood-brain] barrier there. The other 95% of the brain, we don’t even touch,” said Price, the research director at UVA’s Focused Ultrasound Center. “Then, when we apply the focused ultrasound, it opens the barrier there for a few hours. It lets us get the gene therapy across, and then it closes naturally.”

One potential application of the technology: Price aims to let doctors treat brain tumors using “deep-penetrating nanoparticles.” The nanoparticles, designed by collaborators at Johns Hopkins, would deliver gene therapy and are “specifically engineered to penetrate the tissue extremely well,” Price said.

The problem has been getting them exactly where they’re needed. To accomplish this, Price would use focused soundwaves to open portals between cells. “It doesn’t help us if you can’t get to the neuron that’s 50 microns away,” he said. “So that becomes an engineering transport problem.”

In addition to delivering the therapy, focused ultrasound can “precondition” targeted tissue to enhance the effectiveness of the gene delivery up to five-fold, Price has found. The preconditioning is a “simple and effective strategy” to boost the nanoparticles’ benefits of the nanoparticles, he and his colleagues report.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of focused ultrasound’s potential, Price says. “What I, as an engineer, get excited about are all these tools we have made,” he said. “You can use these tools for all these different applications. We think there are a lot of really exciting possibilities.”

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