Cooking cancer may cut need for surgery


Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Vicki Freeman lay perfectly still inside a tube-like machine as ultrasound waves beamed deep into her cancerous breast. Little bursts of heat signaled the beams were cooking her tumor to death without a mark or cut to her skin.

Freeman is one of the first women to try a novel medical experiment to see if this "focused ultrasound therapy" might one day offer a noninvasive alternative to breast cancer surgery.

It will take years of study to prove whether cooking tumors works. But as women already clamor for less disfiguring breast surgery, pilot experiments at Houston’s M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and Boston’s Brigham &amp Women’s Hospital signal the latest in a growing trend: research on ways to make cancer removal not just less invasive, but to quit cutting patients altogether.

"If you think about surgery, it’s sort of medieval," said Dr. Darrell Smith, a Harvard University radiologist conducting Brigham &amp Women’s study. "We’re trying to get more elegant in the way we do this. It’s kind of Star Trek in a way."

Yet it raises a serious safety question: Are doctors trying to make tumor removal too minimal, particularly for diseases like breast cancer where surgery can work very well? After all, scientists already know that some younger women undergoing lumpectomies get too little tissue cut out for cosmetic reasons, leaving them more vulnerable to cancer’s return than if they had properly sized lumpectomies. Plus, if nonsurgical methods do prove safe, they’ll require more complicated machinery — and thus will be more expensive — than a simple lumpectomy.

But some radiologists insist noninvasive technologies should eliminate just as much tumor as a surgeon’s knife. A small Harvard study, to be unveiled at a radiology meeting next month, suggests focused ultrasound can successfully cook away benign breast tumors called fibroadenomas, bolstering hopes for the new cancer experiments.

And while breast cancer offers an easy-to-study target, the ultimate goal is to one day help harder-to-treat brain, liver or soft-tissue cancer, or other disorders like uterine fibroids, where surgery isn’t optimal.

"We know from basic science and animal research that it can work. Now we have to show it’s feasible," said M.D. Anderson’s Dr. Marc Fenstermacher, who treated Freeman.

To do that, Fenstermacher and Smith will test 30 women destined for surgical removal of small breast tumors. Patients lie inside a specially outfitted magnetic resonance imaging machine. Guided by the MRI’s continual sharp picture of the tumor, doctors position ultrasound focusing equipment called transducers, built into the MRI table, to beam into the tumor. On the MRI, the tumor lights up as 10-second blasts heat it to more than 140 degrees.

About a week later, study participants undergo a regular lumpectomy to see if the tumor really is dead and if enough tissue around it is free of cancer cells — an important safeguard for a first study. If it works safely, doctors eventually will seek Food and Drug Administration permission to test focused ultrasound without a lumpectomy.

"It meant I wasn’t really benefitting myself … but I hope I’m helping other women down the road," said Freeman, who praised the pain-free ultrasound.

To illustrate how it works, hold a magnifying glass in sunlight. The lens can focus enough light to burn, say, a leaf directly underneath, but that’s the only hot spot, Smith explains. Similarly, the transducers act like a lens to focus heat from high-intensity ultrasound waves just on the tumor, leaving other breast tissue unharmed.

Copyright ©2000 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Talk to us

> Give us your news tips.

> Send us a letter to the editor.

> More Herald contact information.

More in Local News

Traffic idles while waiting for the lights to change along 33rd Avenue West on Tuesday, April 2, 2024 in Lynnwood, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Lynnwood seeks solutions to Costco traffic boondoggle

Let’s take a look at the troublesome intersection of 33rd Avenue W and 30th Place W, as Lynnwood weighs options for better traffic flow.

A memorial with small gifts surrounded a utility pole with a photograph of Ariel Garcia at the corner of Alpine Drive and Vesper Drive ion Wednesday, April 10, 2024 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Death of Everett boy, 4, spurs questions over lack of Amber Alert

Local police and court authorities were reluctant to address some key questions, when asked by a Daily Herald reporter this week.

The new Amazon fulfillment center under construction along 172nd Street NE in Arlington, just south of Arlington Municipal Airport. (Chuck Taylor / The Herald) 20210708
Frito-Lay leases massive building at Marysville business park

The company will move next door to Tesla and occupy a 300,0000-square-foot building at the Marysville business park.

The Arlington Public Schools Administration Building is pictured on Tuesday, April 16, 2024, in Arlington, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
$2.5M deficit in Arlington schools could mean dozens of cut positions

The state funding model and inflation have led to Arlington’s money problems, school finance director Gina Zeutenhorst said Tuesday.

Lily Gladstone poses at the premiere of the Hulu miniseries "Under the Bridge" at the DGA Theatre, Monday, April 15, 2024, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)
Mountlake Terrace’s Lily Gladstone plays cop in Hulu’s ‘Under the Bridge’

The true-crime drama started streaming Wednesday. It’s Gladstone’s first part since her star turn in “Killers of the Flower Moon.”

Jesse L. Hartman (Photo provided by Everett Police Department)
Everett man who fled to Mexico given 22 years for fatal shooting

Jesse Hartman crashed into Wyatt Powell’s car and shot him to death. He fled but was arrested on the Mexican border.

Snow is visible along the top of Mount Pilchuck from bank of the Snohomish River on Wednesday, May 10, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Washington issues statewide drought declaration, including Snohomish County

Drought is declared when there is less than 75% of normal water supply and “there is the risk of undue hardship.”

Boeing Quality Engineer Sam Salehpour, right, takes his seat before testifying at a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs - Subcommittee on Investigations hearing to examine Boeing's broken safety culture with Ed Pierson, and Joe Jacobsen, right, on Wednesday, April 17, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf)
Everett Boeing whistleblower: ‘They are putting out defective airplanes’

Dual Senate hearings Wednesday examined allegations of major safety failures at the aircraft maker.

An Alaska Airline plane lands at Paine Field Saturday on January 23, 2021. (Kevin Clark/The Herald)
Alaska Airlines back in the air after all flights grounded for an hour

Alaska Airlines flights, including those from Paine Field, were grounded Wednesday morning. The FAA lifted the ban around 9 a.m.

A Mukilteo firefighter waves out of a fire truck. (Photo provided by Mukilteo Fire Department)
EMS levy lift would increase tax bill $200 for average Mukilteo house

A measure rejected by voters in 2023 is back. “We’re getting further and further behind as we go through the days,” Fire Chief Glen Albright said.

An emergency overdose kit with naloxone located next to an emergency defibrillator at Mountain View student housing at Everett Community College on Tuesday, March 5, 2024 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
To combat fentanyl, Snohomish County trickles out cash to recovery groups

The latest dispersal, $77,800 in total, is a wafer-thin slice of the state’s $1.1 billion in opioid lawsuit settlements.

A giant Bigfoot creation made by Terry Carrigan, 60, at his home-based Skywater Studios on Sunday, April 14, 2024 in Monroe, Washington. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
The 1,500-pound Sasquatch: Bigfoot comes to life in woods near Monroe

A possibly larger-than-life sculpture, created by Terry Carrigan of Skywater Studios, will be featured at this weekend’s “Oddmall” expo.

Support local journalism

If you value local news, make a gift now to support the trusted journalism you get in The Daily Herald. Donations processed in this system are not tax deductible.