Using Sound Waves To Destroy Prostate Cancer And Other Conditions
A woman prepares for treatment of uterine fibroids using a technique called high-intensity focused ultrasound. Insightec

Destroying prostate cancer with high-powered, focused sound waves is an effective alternative with significantly fewer side effects compared to traditional treatments, according to a new study. The technique eliminates tumors without damaging surrounding tissue and could lead to more men getting treated, researchers said.

Aside from skin cancer, prostate cancer is the most common cancer in American men -- more than 250,000 men will be diagnosed with the condition in 2012, according to the American Cancer Society. Most men diagnosed don't die from prostate cancer and treatment side effects are so common doctors often advise men with slow-growing tumors not to undergo treatment, according to the study.

Prostate cancer is typically treated with tumor-removing surgery or radiation, but about 90 percent of men who undergo prostate cancer treatments experience sexual dysfunction and 30 percent have urinary incontinence, according to the American Cancer Society.

Researchers destroyed prostate tumors and left the surrounding areas unscathed with focused sound waves that vibrate and heat the tumors to 176 degrees Fahrenheit (80 degrees Celsius). None of the 41 men who underwent the treatment, called high-intensity focused ultrasound, developed urinary incontinence and only 10 percent of treated men had erectile dysfunction, according to the study. The treatment is noninvasive and the majority of the patients were home within 24 hours. Ninety-five percent of the participants were cancer free after a year.

This could offer a transformation of the way we treat prostate cancer. It could offer a cost-effective treatment... and offer men with early prostate cancer an opportunity to treat their disease, but with very few side-effects, Hashim Ahmed, study coauthor and urological surgeon at University College Hospital in London, told BBC News.

Treating prostate cancer with high-intensity focused ultrasound may be cheaper than conventional methods, Ahmed said. Researchers mapped the prostate with a high-resolution MRI to identify the exact location of the tumors and then used high-intensity focused ultrasound to destroy them, a total cost of about $4,000, Ahmed told BusinessWeek. Surgery can cost upward of $7,000, and healthcare costs associated with the side effects can add thousands, he said.

The procedure has already proved effective at treating uterine fibroids, noncancerous tumors that can cause abdominal pain, vaginal hemorrhaging and infertility. The Food and Drug Administration approved high-intensity focused ultrasound as a treatment for fibroids in 2004. The treatment is effective in about 80 percent of patients, with only 16 percent to 20 percent requiring additional treatment, according to a 2007 study.

High-intensity focused ultrasound may also be a viable treatment for Parkinson's disease, a degenerative central nervous system disorder that causes tremors, difficulty walking and dementia. Medication to slow the disease's progression isn't always effective, but surgery can be useful to reduce symptoms in severe cases. Researchers showed high-intensity focused ultrasound is effective at wiping out abnormal cells without having to drill into the patient's skull in a clinical trial, according to Jeff Elias, a neurosurgeon at the University of Virginia.

It's kind of analogous to focusing a magnifying glass on a leaf, where you can generate a lot of energy at a very small point, he told WVTF Radio.

Elias is preparing a large scale clinical trial to study further the effect of high-intensity focused ultrasound on Parkinson's disease.

Researchers stressed the study was very small and said more research needs to be done before the technique becomes widely used to treat prostate cancer.

High-intensity focused ultrasound has the potential to become the standard treatment for prostate cancer, as long as future research confirms the study's findings, oncologists said.

We look forward to the results of further trials, which we hope will provide a clearer idea of whether this treatment can control cancer in the long term whilst ridding men of the fear that treating their cancer might mean losing their quality of life, Gillies McKenna, director of the Gray Institute for Radiation Oncology and Biology, told BBC News.

The Lancet Oncology published the study on Tuesday.