HOUSTON – Technology introduced by members of a galaxy far away, a long time ago, is now one step closer to reality.

And, it’s with funding from a space medicine research institute that this breakthrough device will one day kill tumors and stop internal bleeding without knives, scalpels or stitches – basically without surgery as we know it.

High-intensity focused ultrasound (HIFU) devices target ultrasound in precise locations for non-invasive surgical treatments. Using diagnostic ultrasound to image a problem area, tumor site or internal trauma injury, an individual can then point-and-shoot the HIFU transducer and destroy unwanted tissue or cauterize a lesion or blood vessel.

“With HIFU we increase the amplitude of the ultrasound. Instead of dispersing the ultrasound in a fan-like arrangement, which gives you internal images, we focus the ultrasound like a magnifying glass,” said Dr. Lawrence Crum, associate team leader for the Smart Medical Systems Team for the National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI). The Institute, along with the United States Department of Defense, is helping to fund the device’s development.

“The device increases the intensity of the ultrasound and focuses it to generate heat inside the body with pinpoint accuracy. So the treatment doesn’t affect surrounding tissue,” Crum said.

The HIFU device is being developed for use in remote areas or on battlefields where traditional treatment is not possible. Once developed, the device will be ideal for ambulance and emergency room applications as well.

“We’ve developed devices that have been used to stop bleeding and treat tumors. These are not yet approved for human use,” said Crum, who is director of the Center for Industrial and Medical Ultrasound at the University of Washington’s Applied Physics Laboratory.
This method of treatment would have made a big difference had it been available to Jerri Nielsen, the doctor at a United States South Pole research station who developed a malignant breast tumor.

Crum cautions that the device is still in the research phase and is far from being ready for human trials. But, the team is encouraged by the development of similar technology in Asian and European countries. Chinese researchers have treated more than 25 different types of cancer in 5,000 people, including pancreatic cancer. By working with researchers around the globe, Crum’s team has learned a lot along the way.

The group is developing a version of the device for use on space missions. From shuttle flights and aboard the ISS to future interplanetary missions, the device could provide emergency medical care for injuries or conditions that might otherwise halt a mission. The space-qualifiable version will be lightweight, portable and versatile.

The group is also looking at the long-term effects of the device on tissue as well as overcoming any problems of using the device in space.

The project is complemented by NSBRI teams looking at other space health concerns such as bone loss, cardiovascular changes, muscle wasting, balance and orientation problems, and radiation exposure. While focusing on space health issues, the Institute will quickly transfer the solutions to Earth patients suffering from similar conditions. The NSBRI is funded by NASA.


The NSBRI’s consortium members include Baylor College of Medicine, Brookhaven National Laboratory, Harvard Medical School, The Johns Hopkins University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Morehouse School of Medicine, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, Rice University, Texas A&M University, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, University of Pennsylvania Health System and the University of Washington.