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Curiosity rewarded

By Alisa Kim  •  July 27, 2018

Dr. Kullervo Hynynen, a pioneer in therapeutic focused ultrasound and director of Physical Sciences at Sunnybrook Research Institute (SRI), was awarded the Margolese National Brain Disorders Prize from the University of British Columbia. He was recognized with the honour, which comes with a $50,000 award, for his scientific achievements and potential to make further contributions in the field.

For more than 30 years, Hynynen, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Imaging Systems and Image-Guided Therapy, has taken ultrasound devices all the way from ideas to technologies that are used on patients. In 2001, he was the first to show that low-intensity focused ultrasound paired with microbubbles injected into the bloodstream can transiently and reversibly open the blood-brain barrier for targeted drug delivery. He continued to develop the technology and later teamed up with Dr. Isabelle Aubert, a neurobiologist at SRI, to apply this finding in research into Alzheimer’s disease. When they tested this technique in preclinical models in 2010, they were able to deliver therapies directly into the brain. In 2014, they also found that applying focused ultrasound alone rescued memory and stimulated growth of new brain cells.

Discoveries he made on focused ultrasound with colleagues in research and industry led to the formation of a company, InSightec, which commercialized the technology. The system pairs focused ultrasound with MRI to guide and monitor delivery. In August 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Health Canada approved InSightec’s brain device for treatment of essential tremor, a movement disorder that afflicts about half a million Canadians. They did so on the back of a seminal clinical trial showing that focused ultrasound safely and effectively reduces tremor in people for whom nothing else had worked.

Under Hynynen’s leadership, researchers at SRI have made groundbreaking advances in focused ultrasound, advancing it ever closer to patients. In 2015, Hynynen was lead physicist of a team at Sunnybrook that was the world’s first to deliver chemotherapy into the brain of a woman with brain cancer noninvasively. In 2017, Sunnybrook researchers conducted the world’s first clinical trial using focused ultrasound to cross the blood-brain barrier in people with Alzheimer’s disease. Led by Dr. Nir Lipsman, a scientist at SRI and neurosurgeon at Sunnybrook, they showed that focused ultrasound can open the blood-brain barrier in a specific region safely, reversibly and repeatedly in people with Alzheimer’s disease—a finding published July 25, 2018 in Nature Communications.

The prize follows other accolades. In January 2018, he was named a Fellow of the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, pronounced “eye-triple-E”). In 2016, he received the Visionary Award from the Focused Ultrasound Foundation, which also designated Sunnybrook as a Centre of Excellence in Focused Ultrasound, the only one in Canada and one of only seven worldwide.