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Breaching the blood-brain barrier

Ultrasound may be more than a century old, but Sunnybrook’s experts are harnessing its energy to target specific areas of the brain and body far beyond where a scalpel could go.

Hailed as a modern marvel today, focused ultrasound uses sound waves guided by imaging to disrupt malfunctioning circuitry or potentially destroy disease.

Sunnybrook made history in 2015 when researchers in the Hurvitz Brain Sciences Research Program in the Sunnybrook Research Institute launched a clinical trial using focused ultrasound to noninvasively and temporarily breach the blood-brain barrier – a protective layer around the brain – and investigate a more effective way of delivering chemotherapy into the brain tumour of a patient.

Philanthropic support has played a major role in advancing and accelerating Sunnybrook’s work in focused ultrasound. Several historic milestones in the years since have opened a new frontier: paving the way for the continued research of innovative treatments of obsessive-compulsive disorder, major depression, Alzheimer’s disease, ALS and more.

Here’s a look at some recent highlights for the technology:

New made-in-Canada device

Sunnybrook is developing a made-in-Canada device to take on the world’s biggest threats to our brain health. The $33-million Weston Family Focused Ultrasound Initiative, launched in 2020 with a landmark $16.7-million philanthropic grant from the Weston Family Foundation, is accelerating development of a powerful new focused ultrasound technology that could one day enable the personalized treatment of the most challenging brain disorders of our time – including Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, ALS and brain cancer. From one-size-fits-all to made-to-measure, this helmet-like device will deliver focused ultrasound without the need for real-time MRI. With donor support, Sunnybrook is set to revolutionize the treatment of brain disorders.

World-first for Parkinson’s

“I am the first patient in the world with Parkinson’s disease to participate in this research study. I saw what my dad went through with Parkinson’s and it was tough. There’s also a chance my kids could have the gene. I’m doing this for them and for others in the future who may be diagnosed with Parkinson’s.” – Pat Wilson, who is taking part in a world-first clinical trial led by Sunnybrook and University Health Network that is exploring the safety of focused ultrasound in opening the blood-brain barrier in patients with Parkinson’s disease. Read more from Pat here.

Pat Wilson on her farm in Cookstown, Ont.

World-first study

Sunnybrook researchers demonstrated the potential of focused ultrasound to improve the detection of brain cancer biomarkers.

In a world-first study, Sunnybrook researchers have shown how focused ultrasound can help detect brain cancer biomarkers.
Trial launches for bilateral essential tremor

“There are so many individuals affected by essential tremor.” – Aidan Bolger, who says his quality of life was “virtually nonexistent” as he struggled with bilateral essential tremor for many years. He received focused ultrasound treatment for his right hand in 2019 and returned a year later to participate in Sunnybrook’s latest clinical trial, for his left hand. “I feel like I’m the luckiest guy in the world,” he said. Noticing his left hand was steadier after the procedure he exclaimed: “I’m like the Rock of Gibraltar!” Read more about Aidan’s story and the new clinical trial testing the safety of this treatment for both hands here.

After receiving treatment for bilateral essential tremor for both hands, Aidan Bolger emphasizes the importance of continued research to help other patients like him.
Dr. Michael Schwartz checks on Aidan during his treatment.
Aidan drawing spirals after his treatment.

Transformative power for Alzheimer’s and more

“I believe in the transformative power of [focused ultrasound] technology, and I’m grateful to have seen how much bench-to-bedside progress has happened in the last 10 years. It makes me so excited to be a part of what’s yet to come.” – Dr. Kristiana Xhima, who recently completed her PhD in Dr. Isabelle Aubert’s lab at the Sunnybrook Research Institute, and has published preclinical studies involving potential treatments for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. A high school internship at Sunnybrook nearly a decade ago gave Dr. Xhima a peek into focused ultrasound and set her on a course that has defined her career. With Dr. Aubert, who leads Sunnybrook’s Brain Repair Group, Dr. Xhima is part of a team investigating the use of focused ultrasound to noninvasively and temporarily open the blood-brain barrier for more effective drug delivery. The work underway in Dr. Aubert’s lab is generously supported by the FDC Foundation, the James H. Cummings Foundation, and Saeid and Fakhri Aghaei.

A decade ago Dr. Kristina Xhima joined Sunnybrook as part of a high school internship that has helped define her career.

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