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Using ultrasound stimulated microbubbles to treat metastases to the brain and spinal cord

This project has been completed

A Toronto-based researcher is hoping to turn the tide on a deadly late-stage cancer complication thanks to a recently won TFRI New Investigator award.

Dr. Meaghan O’Reilly, an ultrasound scientist at Sunnybrook Research Institute in Toronto, will receive $450,000 over the next three years to deepen her research into the use of ultrasound-stimulated microbubbles to treat leptomeningeal metastases (LM), a fatal complication of cancer that occurs when the disease spreads to the lining of the brain and spinal cord.

“Approximately five per cent of patients with solid tumours are diagnosed with LM and those who are have a really grim prognosis,” Dr. O’Reilly explains. “We hope that this research can change that and foster the development of novel, effective therapeutics for the treatment of LM from breast and other primary cancers.”

There is a clear need to develop new treatments for this disease: on average patients with LM live less than five months after diagnosis. While patients with any type of solid tumour can get LM, it is most common in patients with breast cancer. Today, existing therapies for LM, such as whole brain radiation therapy, are only palliative.

Our current inability to treat LM stems largely from the existence of two natural systems – the blood-brain barrier (BBB) and the blood-spinal cord barrier (BSCB) – which normally protect the brain and spinal cord from infections but also prevent drugs from reaching tumours located in those areas. Ultrasound-stimulated microbubbles could change this. Recent studies have shown that this promising technique can be used to temporarily and reversibly open these two barriers to allow drugs to reach the brain or spinal cord. In fact, the use of this technology for primary brain cancers is already in clinical trials, which is why Dr. O’Reilly and her team will focus primarily on testing the technology to treat spinal cord LM.

“We’re using a two-pronged approach to attack these tumours. The first is trying to get drugs across the blood-spinal cord barrier and the other is to go into the area surrounding the brain and spinal cord where you have cerebro-spinal fluid to try to increase the penetration of drugs from that compartment directly into the tumour” she says.

As a New Investigator, Dr. O’Reilly will receive mentorship from Dr. Gregory Czarnota’s ultrasound team at Sunnybrook, which is currently conducting research for TFRI with a New Frontiers Program Project Grant (PPG) in Ultrasound and MRI for Cancer Therapy.  Through this mentorship, O’Reilly and her team will begin laboratory testing to see if this promising technique can be used to effectively treat LM, first in small animals, and then in larger ones.

“The funding and the mentorship we will be getting from the New Frontiers PPG is really going to push the research forward and allow us to optimistically, in three years’ time, have a safety study well underway, so that in a very near future we can bring this technology into a clinical study,” she says.  

Mentoring Program: Ultrasound and MRI for Cancer Therapy

Mentor: Dr. Gregory Czarnota