Medical device and MedTech insights, news, tips and more
How an obscure medical technology caught the eye of Joe Biden. And John Grisham
April 11, 2016
An obscure medical technique involving zapping a body part with converging beams of sound is finally getting some high-profile attention.
Focused ultrasound, as the procedure is known, is used commercially in the United States to treat just a few medical conditions, including uterine fibroids and prostate cancer. Just over two dozen hospitals and clinics across the country offer it. Hardly any insurers will pay for it.
But an irreverent, impatient, retired neurosurgeon has made it his mission to accelerate development of the treatment — and this week, he got an opportunity to do that in a big way when he was named to a paneladvising Vice President Joe Biden on the national cancer moonshot initiative.
The call didn’t come out of the blue for Dr. Neal Kassell. The University of Virginia professor performed two brain surgeries on Biden to repair aneurysms in 1988. A lifelong Republican, Kassell has maintained a friendship with Biden in the years since.
They’ve talked about the therapeutic power of high-frequency sound beams, and a Biden aide even attended a recent workshop put on by Kassell’s Focused Ultrasound Foundation, according to Biden spokeswoman Meghan Dubyak.
Now, the technology — as expensive and limited as it is — “is one of the cutting-edge therapies that the VP is exploring through the moonshot,” Dubyak said.
Kassell believes focused ultrasound has the potential to “play a real role” in advancing the moonshot’s goals, such as by boosting the effects of cancer immunotherapy or delivering chemotherapy in a more targeted manner. He believes it could treat many types of cancer, as well as other diseases like Parkinson’s and perhaps even Alzheimer’s.
“The problem,” Kassell said, “is that most people have never heard of focused ultrasound. So we need to get that visible.”
He’s been working on just that.
Indefatigable at 70, Kassell — pronounced kah-SELL — talks slowly, in a deep voice that initially disguises his frequent deadpan jokes. He’s candid about the frustrations of advocacy and fundraising. He speaks with unvarnished impatience about too much red tape at organizations like the March of Dimes (“a self-perpetuating bureaucracy”) and the University of Virginia (which he jabs for “fiddling around”).
He’s such a persuasive evangelist for focused ultrasound that he inspired best-selling legal novelist John Grisham — a personal friend — to write a book championing the technology’s potential, over the concerns of his publishers. It’s been ordered or downloaded more than 250,000 times since coming out in December.
“To be involved in this is a sort of moral imperative.”
DR. NEAL KASSELL
Kassell turns earnest when he talks about the millions of people he believes could potentially benefit from the treatment. They’re not just hypothetical patients to him: About a decade ago, his son-in-law died within months of being diagnosed with a brain tumor. Kassell now believes that focused ultrasound has potential to treat such tumors.