Oct. 13, 2017

Focused ultrasound offers promising alternative to invasive brain surgery

$3.2 million in funding from CFI helps Hotchkiss team launch research platform
An HBI research team led by Bruce Pike is using a new technology called magnetic resonance guided focused ultrasound for non-invasive brain surgeries. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary
An HBI research team led by Bruce Pike is using a new technology called magnetic resonance guided fo

Imagine a future where devastating brain diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy or brain tumours could be treated using a new generation of neurosurgery where a doctor’s scalpel never touches the patient; where a patient experiencing severe tremor — to the point they are unable to sign their name or bring a cup of coffee to their mouth — can suddenly perform these tasks immediately following the procedure.  

A $3.2-million Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) science infrastructure award announced today by Kent Hehr, minister of sport and persons with disabilities, is helping a team of scientists at the Hotchkiss Brain Institute (HBI) in the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine (CSM) launch an exciting new research program that is making these “what ifs” a possibility.

Innovative technology paves way to non-invasive treatment

Led by HBI’s Bruce Pike, PhD, pictured above and a professor in the departments of Radiology and Clinical Neurosciences, the team is using a new technology called magnetic resonance guided focused ultrasound (MRgFUS). The technology uses magnetic resonance (MR) imaging to provide visuals of the patient’s brain in real-time during the procedure. The FUS technology sends highly focused ultrasound waves into the brain of the awake patient to a targeted area — as small as a grain of rice — without damaging the surrounding tissue.

“I am delighted by Minister Hehr’s announcement today of the funding support from the CFI for our magnetic resonance guided focused ultrasound program,” says Pike, the Campus Alberta Innovation Program Chair in Healthy Brain Aging who is recognized as a world leader in MR imaging. “This revolutionary new technology enables precise neurosurgery to be performed without breaking the skin. We are also exploring the technology’s ability to help deliver drugs directly to brain tumours and to precisely stimulate brain tissue on the millimetre scale.  This remarkable technology offers a vast range of potential applications — from treating movement disorders to epilepsy to Alzheimer’s disease.”

An ultrasound machine used in the MRgFUS program.

An ultrasound machine used in the MRgFUS program.

Quentin Collier, Alberta Health Services

Initial surgeries produce life-changing results

The first procedure this technology was used for was performed earlier this year by neurosurgeon Dr. Zelma Kiss. Her patient had an excellent reduction in his tremor. An additional five patient procedures — each of them day surgeries — have since been performed. All patients have experienced profound improvements with minimal clinical complications.

“The CFI award will allow us to learn how ultrasound alters brain cell activity; how it modulates the brain,” says Kiss, a professor in the CSM’s Department of Clinical Neurosciences and a member of the HBI. “Understanding it at a mechanistic level may lead to treatments for conditions we have not even thought of yet.”

Collaboration facilitates critical funding to support excellence in research

By working with national and international partners, the UCalgary program will be among the world’s first to research the use of FUS at lower intensities to modulate brain activity levels in specific locations and to precisely deliver drugs. This could lead to new treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, depression, and other brain disorders. Additionally, by collaborating with Alberta Health Services (AHS) and with industry partners, the team will be able to expedite integration of their research and clinical application into Alberta’s health-care system.

This major investment by CFI, along with philanthropic support from the Rob McAlpine Legacy Initiative and the Cumming Medical Research Fund, is paving the way for a larger research platform that is attracting world leaders in imaging, neurology, neurosurgery and neuroscience.

“Funding from key contributors is helping us catapult our focused ultrasound research program forward,” says Pike. “Based on these investments, we have already recruited Samuel Pichardo, PhD, an exceptional ultrasound scientist, to the CSM; Dr. Davide Martino, a leader in the study of movement disorders, to the CSM; and Laura Curiel, PhD, a brilliant ultrasound engineer, to the Schulich School of Engineering. I am confident this new program will continue to attract leading scientists and clinicians to Calgary from around the world.”

Neurosurgeon Zelma Kiss, who performed the first procedure with the MRgFUS technology earlier this year.

Neurosurgeon Zelma Kiss, who performed the first procedure with the MRgFUS technology.

Cumming School of Medicine

Direct benefits for Canadians

In Canada, one in three people will experience a brain or nervous system illness or injury within their lifetime. The economic burden is staggering; the federal government estimates direct illness costs of neuro-psychiatric conditions alone exceed $12 billion annually — a total that doesn’t include lost productivity or other indirect costs. This cost is surpassing that of all other diseases in Canada.

The MRgFUS technology is providing new hope for effective treatments that drastically reduce recovery times and risks associated with traditional neurosurgery.

“We are proud that two of the six CFI awards being granted to the University of Calgary today are for innovative technologies introduced by HBI-led research teams,” says Keith Sharkey, PhD, interim director of the HBI. (Another CFI award has been announced for the HBI/Snyder Institute-led Program in Neural-immune Interactions for Studies of Visceral Pain and Inflammation.)

“The HBI’s mission is to inspire discovery and apply knowledge toward innovative solutions for neurological and mental health disorders, and a big part of our job is to facilitate collaboration and funding so that the discovery and innovation can happen at the University of Calgary.” 

Led by the Hotchkiss Brain Institute, Brain and Mental Health is one of six research strategies guiding the University of Calgary towards its Eyes High goals. The strategy provides a unifying direction for brain and mental health research at the university and positions researchers to unlock new discoveries and treatments for brain health in our community.