Ultrasound cuts side effects when used to remove tumours.
Replacing a surgeon's scalpel with a beam of high-energy sound could reduce the side effects that hamper some cancer treatments, says the team behind a new clinical trial.
The study of prostate cancer patients, announced on 14 February, adds to the growing hope that high-frequency sounds beyond the range of human hearing will one day transform the removal of tumours.
"It will eventually revolutionize treatment for some cancers," predicts Gail ter Haar of the Royal Marsden Hospital in Sutton, near London.
The French study used a high-energy version of the ultrasound waves that are used to image unborn babies.
The waves normally travel harmlessly through the body, but when focused on one spot, they boost tissue temperature to above 60 °C and kill cells. By moving the focus of the waves, doctors can remove whole tumours without a single incision.
Jean-Yves Chapelon and his colleagues at the French National Institute for Health and Medical Research in Paris used ultrasound to treat around 240 elderly prostate cancer patients for whom surgical removal of the prostate - a common strategy for combating the cancer - was considered too risky.
They then tracked the patients' progress for five years.
Around 65% of the patients remained free of cancer during this time, a similar success rate to surgery. But rates of incontinence, the major side effect of surgery, were cut from 80% to 8%.
Unlike other therapies, the treatment can be safely repeated if the cancer reappears. "This is now ready to challenge other therapies," says Chapelon.
The result backs up a similar study of German patients, published in 2000, and adds to mounting evidence of the benefits of ultrasound.
The therapy is already widely used in China to attack cancers of the liver and kidney, says ter Haar, and Chinese doctors say the treatment has fewer side effects than alternatives such as radiotherapy.
She is now running a clinical trial designed to assess these claims.
Ultrasound can tackle cancer anywhere in the body, as long as tumours are not obstructed by bone or pockets of gas such as air in the lungs. The treatment lasts one to three hours.
American Association for the Advancement of Science,
Seattle, February, 2004
Thanks to Nature Cancer Updates
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