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Using ultrsound and MRI technology to improve cancer care

A team of pioneering cancer researchers in Toronto is looking to harness the power of ultrasound technology to personalize and improve cancer treatments thanks to renewal funding from the Terry Fox Research Institute.

The team, led by Dr. Gregory Czarnota, a radiation oncologist and senior scientist at the Odette Cancer Centre at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, will use $6-million over the next six years from a Terry Fox New Frontiers Program Project Grant to explore techniques that use ultrasound technology that may make existing cancer therapies up to 60 times more effective. They’ll also aim to harness the imaging power of ultrasound to better predict how cancer patients will respond to treatments. A private Vancouver-based foundation is providing $2.9 million of the funding, with the remaining $3.1 million coming from TFRI.

“As a team, we understand that innovation is the only way to make cancer therapies more precise and effective,” says Dr. Czarnota. “That is why we value this new grant as an opportunity to continue pushing boundaries to bring more hope to cancer patients.”

The team will explore a technique called focused ultrasound. This innovative approach enhances cancer therapies by directing small gas bubbles known as microbubbles into tumours. When these microbubbles are stimulated with ultrasound under magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) guidance, they pry open the defenses of cancer cells, allowing more radiation to reach its target.

In previously funded work, the team conducted two first-in-human studies with a cohort of 10 patients— one involving women with recurrent breast cancer, and the second focused on patients with metastatic head and neck tumours. These studies yielded promising results: complete responses were achieved in almost all cases, with a large fraction of tumours entirely resolved with doses of radiation that, on their own, would otherwise have been insufficient to produce these results.

“Everything completely disappeared,” said Dr. Czarnota. “These were patients with very little hope and tumours which would be considered incurable, and they were all gone, including some metastases.  We’ve never seen anything quite like that before.”

In this iteration of the project, the team will refine methodologies and move its research into larger clinical trials that will see if this approach not only improves the efficacy of radiation therapy, but also that of other therapies such as chemotherapy and immunotherapy for patients with melanomas and breast cancer.

“We are extremely excited about the potential for impact of focused ultrasound, and we are grateful for the opportunity to continue moving this technology closer to the clinic,” said Dr. Czarnota.

In addition to focused ultrasound, the New Frontiers Program Project Grant team will also use the funding to continue refining the ways in which quantitative ultrasound and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technologies are used to monitor – and potentially predict – the response of cancer patients to current therapies with the goal of personalizing treatments, making them safer and more effective.

“Our goal in this new funding phase is to build on past findings and accelerate the implementation of these new technologies in clinical trials,” Dr. Czarnota said. “This new TFRI PPG will allow us to do this, not only because of the funding it provides, but because it brings together inter-related projects that are highly synergistic, which means that we can bring together research teams with different expertise to collaborate on a single project.”