Dr. Neal Kassell is the founder of the Focused Ultrasound Surgery Foundation, whose mission it is “to shorten the time from technology development to patient treatment; to foster new applications; and to accelerate the worldwide adoption of focused ultrasound surgery.” We were fortunate enough to speak to Dr. Kassell, a neurosurgery professor at the University of Virginia and chairman of the FUS Foundation, which he founded in October 2006.
Q: When you had your “aha” moment that ultrasound could be used in neurosurgery to treat brain tumors, what inspired this?
Dr. Kassell: At the same time that I had some frustration over the limitations of Gamma Knife treatment for benign brain tumors, as well as other treatments, and was looking around for non-invasive approaches, coincidentally I was doing research in the laboratory measuring blood flow in the brain by the clearance of microbubbles that were burst with ultrasound.
Q: Was that focused ultrasound?
Dr. Kassell: No, that was not focused ultrasound. It was just ultrasound and that’s where I had the idea of maybe you could use ultrasound. Then I went to the web and discovered that yes people have been working in this area and it really had a lot of potential.
Q: For aspiring students and others new to the world of ultrasound technology, how would you describe the process of focused ultrasound?
Dr. Kassell: It’s analogous to using a magnifying glass to focus beams of light on a point and burning a hole in a leaf. With focused ultrasound, instead of an optical lens, an acoustic lens is used to focus multiple beams of ultrasound energy on a point deep in the body [such as a tumor].
Q: I get the sense that you founded the FUS Foundation more to save lives rather than for medical professionals to receive accolades …
Dr. Kassell: The Foundation is all about the patients and everything we do is related to accelerating the development and adoption of the technology so that it helps patients. We’re not concerned with individual glory or people making money. We just want to see the patients benefit.
Q: What have been some of the highlights since you started the FUS Foundation in 2006?
Dr. Kassell: Well, I think the highlights are the number and quality of people involved, whether it’s the Foundation’s donors or the Board of Directors or the fabulous people with the device manufacturers, as well as the people with NIH and the people with FDA. The focused ultrasound community is just an outstanding group of people—that’s one thing. And then the second thing is the spark that really ignited the field: the essential tremor patients that were treated here at the University of Virginia. That sort of validated the technology and it shifted the dialogue from “if this technology is real and has a role” to “when will it be available to treat a whole variety of disorders”.
Q: Currently the use of focused ultrasound is approved to treat uterine fibroids and pain from bone metastases in the United States. Are there any additional treatments expected to be approved in the near future, in the U.S and/or elsewhere in the world?
Dr. Kassell: For essential tremors, a pivotal clinical trial needs to be done, so approval is two to three years off. There are a couple clinical trials on low-grade prostate cancer that have just been approved to be conducted. In Europe of course, there is more widespread regulatory approval for uterine fibroids, bone metastases, prostate cancer, essential tremor, neuropathic pain and tremor-dominant Parkinson’s disease.
Q: Is there anything you would like to add?
Dr. Kassell: I think the message is that this is a revolutionary technology that has the potential (and I emphasize the potential…) to improve the lives of millions of people. It could be as important to therapy as MR-scanning was to diagnosis (and MR-scanning revolutionized diagnosis). So focused ultrasound could (and I emphasize could) revolutionize therapy to the same degree that MR revolutionized diagnosis.