UK clinical trial to investigate focused ultrasound for treatment of cancer pain


Researchers at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, and The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust are investigating whether ultrasound therapy can relieve pain in patients whose cancers have spread to the bone.

The technique, known as high-intensity focused ultrasound, concentrates ultrasound energy precisely on a target in the body to thermally destroy tissue. The technology is coupled with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) guidance to identify, target and track treatment in real time. The treatment produces heat to destroy the nerve tissue in the bone around the tumour causing the pain, while leaving adjacent areas unharmed.

Patients whose cancers have metastasised to the bone can experience intense bone pain, which can severely reduce their quality of life. High-intensity focused ultrasound could provide a non-invasive way of controlling pain for these patients where radiotherapy is no longer an option, or where other treatments have been unable to control the disease.

The first five patients have already been treated in the clinical trial, with encouraging reductions in the pain they were experiencing from bone tumours. If this study proves successful for pain control, it could lead to further studies at The Institute of Cancer Research and the Royal Marsden to thermally destroy local tumours at an earlier stage of the disease, possibly helping to extend life. 

Study co-principal investigator Gail ter Haar, professor of Therapeutic Ultrasound, The Institute of Cancer Research, London, UK, said: “Focused ultrasound is an exciting potential cancer treatment because of its ability to target tumours very precisely. The point onto which the ultrasound beam is focused gets very hot, but the surrounding tissue is left unharmed.”

Study co-leader Nandita deSouza, professor of Translational Imaging, The Institute of Cancer Research, London, and honorary consultant, The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust, said: “We are still learning how best to use focused ultrasound, but we believe it has real potential for improving the quality of life of patients with advanced cancer. Cancers that have spread to the bone can cause intense pain, and further radiotherapy may not be an option. It is early days in our trial, but we hope ultrasound therapy will prove effective at reducing the pain caused by bone metastases, and offer the chance for patients to live the final stages of their lives much more comfortably.”

The trial is part of a wider initiative between the ICR, The Royal Marsden, the Focused Ultrasound Foundation and Philips, the developer of the high-intensity focused ultrasound system.

“MR imaging is emerging in oncology applications, because of its excellent real-time 3D visualisation of both soft tissue anatomy and physiological processes”, said Christopher Busch, general manager MR Therapy at Philips. “Combining focused ultrasound thermal therapies with real-time MR imaging and monitoring is a powerful concept that has the potential to become a new precision treatment tool in oncology.”