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25 October 2005

Research shows cancer cells can be targeted and destroyed

Scientists at the University of Dundee have demonstrated that cancer cells can be targeted and destroyed by a single blast of ultrasound according to an article published in leading scientific journal "Nature-Physics".

Military technology has been used to develop and prove this ground breaking technique that will end the need for traumatic surgery and extensive drug therapy for cancer patients. The treatment is not specific to one particular type of cancer and could subject to clinical trials be available to all cancer patients in as little as 5 years.

Previous research has shown that gas bubbles injected intravenously will naturally cluster around the cancerous cells. The team from Dundee have proved for the first time that when those bubbles are stimulated by a microsecond range burst of high intensity ultrasound energy, the gas bubbles can puncture the cancer cells and kill them. They were able to establish this process beyond doubt using an ultra-fast imaging system, photographing a million frames per second, and developed by the army specifically to observe the impact of ballistic shells and bullets with armour plates.

The research has been led by physicist Dr Paul Campbell at the University of Dundee, and Professor Sir Alfred Cuschieri at the Department of Surgery and Molecular Oncology at Ninewells Hospital in Dundee. Prof Cuschieri is a pioneering figure in the area of keyhole surgery and continues to develop routes to less invasive surgical procedures. Advanced optics involving lasers and holography to hold the gas bubbles close to the tissue plane using only the force of light itself were developed by Paul Prentice, a PhD student with Dr Campbell's group, in collaboration with Professor Kishan Dholakia at St Andrews University.

Commenting on the research, Dr Paul Campbell said: "Conventional cancer treatment usually requires surgery to cut out the diseased tissues, causing significant trauma, pain and discomfort to the patient, often delaying recovery for extended period of many months. This new ultrasound treatment can focus energy directly to a tumour site inside the body and deliver a single blast of energy, without harming any surrounding tissues."

The ultrasound treatment could eventually make systemic chemotherapy treatments a thing of the past. The gas bubbles injected into the cancer patient can be coated with anti-cancer drugs that then enter the punctured cancer cells. The drugs are therefore targeted to flood only the cancer cells in a one shot process, rather than repeatedly flooding the patient's entire body with the chemotherapy drugs. Such coated bubbles have already been developed in the United States. This should dramatically reduce the patient's recovery time and the associated pain and suffering of surgery and chemotherapy.

"It is a sniper treatment for cancer" said Dr Campbell. "The ultrasound activated bubbles target with single cell precision, so that the technique overall is a little like sniping at specific cancer cells, whilst ensuring that healthy tissues remain untouched."

"Our research has proved that the injected gas bubbles react to the ultrasound by instantaneously inflating just like a party balloon. Then they do something quite incredible. The shell of the inflated bubble deforms to develop a fast moving spike directed back into the nearby cancerous cell. When the spike hits the cell membrane it punches through it like a bullet, creating a tiny 'entrance wound' and allowing passage of molecules, which have included drugs, directly into those cells.

"For low ultrasound intensities, the membranes appear to be able to reseal themselves soon afterwards, effectively locking any drug molecules inside. On the other hand, fo higher intensity levels of ultrasound, the damage may be so severe that the cancer cells can be killed outright."

The research, which represents the culmination of a three year project funded by the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) to the tune of over 630,000, has also involved direct collaboration with a world-leading molecular delivery group at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, USA.

"What we have achieved here is an important step forward in our understanding of the processes at large. In order to fully capitalise on this new knowledge however, it is critical that we achieve further funding to push the boundaries of this technology into fullscale clinical trials on humans.

"The benefits are clear: no incisions, no scars, no trauma and a much reduced chance of MRSA infection. This approach could represent the future of surgery and we certainly have the drive and indeed expertise to see this through given the opportunity."

Dr Campbell believes this is a win win situation for everyone concerned: "Not only will this benefit patient but the NHS as a whole by reducing the cost in the long term of treating cancer patients. Hospitals would be able to perform the treatment by undertaking minor modifications to their existing ultrasound equipment"

For more information contact:

Roddy Isles,
Head of Press
Tel: 01382 344910,
out of hours: 07968298585,
Email: r.isles@dundee.ac.uk