Devices & Diagnostics, Policy

Rare focused ultrasound treatment gets some moonshot initiative attention

Focused ultrasound, a rarely used treatment that involves zapping a body part with converging beams of sound, has gotten the attention of Joe Biden and the moonshot initiative.


Focused ultrasound, which involves zapping a body part with converging beams of sound, is rarely used commercially in the U.S. – only about two dozen hospitals offer it, mostly for conditions like uterine fibroids and prostate cancer. But it now has gotten the attention of Vice President Joe Biden.

Dr. Neal Kassell, a professor from The University of Virginia has been promoting this form of treatment for many years. This week he was named to a panel advising Biden on the national cancer moonshot initiative. Kassell has some serious history with Biden, so the connection isn’t random.

Kassell performed two brain surgeries on Biden to repair aneurysms in 1988, and they’ve reportedly been close ever since.

Even though the technology isn’t widely available and is expensive, a Biden spokesperson, Meghan Dubyak said it “is one of the cutting-edge therapies that the VP is exploring through the moonshot.”

As STAT reported, Kassell believes this will be a real opportunity for innovation not only with immunotherapy or delivering chemotherapy in a more targeted manner for cancer patients, but also potentially for those with Parkinson’s and even Alzheimer’s.

Kassell has raised nearly $70 million over the past decade for his Focused Ultrasound Foundation. This is believed to be the only health charity dedicated to a specific medical device.

Not only does Kassell have Biden as a supporter, an unexpected good friend of his, novelist John Grisham, wrote a book about this rare technology’s potential, which came out in December. It’s been ordered and downloaded more than 250,000 times.

Here’s how STAT described how the focused ultrasound works:

During the procedure, patients slide into an MRI machine or lie on a bed where a machine concentrates sound waves on a precisely targeted spot of tissue. It’s most often used to burn and destroy tumors or other unwanted tissue, but early studies suggest it may have promise in unleashing the immune system or activating drugs in the body. And patients don’t have to be put to sleep, go under the knife, or be exposed to harmful radiation.

By being promoted by both Biden and Grisham, this treatment option could potentially become much more widespread in the U.S. in the near future.

Photo: Flickr user liz west