Ultrasound replaces scalpel for some tumor ops

Ultrasound and tumors
Dr. Alan Matsumoto, chair of the UVA Radiology Department, shows CBS News the effectiveness of ultrasound in getting rid of certain kinds of non-cancerous tumors.
CBS News

It may be one of the biggest medical advances since the scalpel: Doctors have discovered a way to treat non-cancerous tumors with sound waves instead of surgery.

CBS News correspondent Nancy Cordes reports that the procedure may one day be used to battle cancer and other diseases.

Stephanie Small will never forget the day she learned she might not be able to have children. The 27-year-old Pennsylvania woman is suffering from a painful fibroid - a benign uterine tumor that can grow as big as a bowling ball, often requiring a hysterectomy.

"I cried. I have no kids and I don't want to not be able to have kids," Stephanie said recently.

In the hopes of avoiding surgery, Stephanie enrolled in a clinical trial at the University of Virginia, where doctors are using sound waves instead of knives. The technology is called focused ultrasound.

"It offers a treatment option that doesn't involve radiation or cutting. That is a huge breakthrough," said Dr. Alan Matsumoto, chair of the UVA Radiology Department.

The patient is awake for the four-hour procedure, lying in an MRI machine. It captures images pinpointing the fibroid's location. The doctor and technicians then bombard the tumor with up to 200 sound waves, which are harmless going into the body. When sound beams are focused on a single spot inside a person, their powerful energy kills tissue, much like sunlight through a magnifying glass burns a leaf.

"Essentially it's like a James Bond movie, you zap the target," Dr. Matsumoto said.

The results are startling. A scan of Stephanie's fibroid before the procedure is incredibly different than what is seen in the same spot afterwards.

Around 7,000 fibroid patients have been treated with focused ultrasound. As many as 90 percent of women in clinical trials reported symptom relief.

That may be just the beginning. Research facilities worldwide, including here at the National Institutes of Health are studying focused ultrasound to treat everything from epilepsy and Parkinson's disease to prostate and bone cancer.

"We will see a day in the coming five years where this treatment is playing a major role for the cancer patient," said Dr. Bradford Wood with the NIH Center for Interventional Oncology.

That's because sound beams can do more than burn tissue to remove tumors. Researchers at NIH are testing where ultrasound can also help deliver cancer treatment drugs.

Here's how it works: The patient is injected with a chemo filled particle, tracked in the bloodstream with MRI technology. When it reaches a tumor, heat generated from ultrasound waves pops the particle, releasing the drug.

"We're sparing normal tissue from the effects of chemotherapy," Dr. Wood said.

Clinical trials in cancer patients could start within two years, but focused ultrasound is already making a difference for fibroid patients like Stephanie Small.

"It was life altering. It was life changing. I'm trying not to cry," Stephanie says.

Six months after treatment, she's looking forward to the future and the family she may someday have--made possible with waves of sound.

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    Nancy Cordes is CBS News' congressional correspondent.