There is a new hope for patients with the deadliest form of brain cancer.

It’s a breakthrough and that’s exactly what this latest technology does – it breaks through the brain’s natural shield so the most powerful chemotherapy drugs can finally reach a tumor.

Dr Adam Sonabend is a neurosurgeon with Northwestern Medicine.

“These tumors universally recur,” he said.

It’s been the greatest challenge for doctors like Sonabend and Roger Stupp, who treat patients with glioblastoma, an aggressive and lethal brain cancer.

“Most drugs that we can use for treating cancer do not reach into these tumor cells that are hidden in the brain,” Sonabend said. “That’s because of this structure called the blood brain barrier.”

That’s because the naturally protective structure has been impermeable – until now.

Using an implantable device, equipped with nine ultrasound emmitters, the Northwestern Medicine team is able to deliver the most potent chemotherapy drugs across the barrier.

It’s a really ingenious approach to opening up the blood brain barrier,” Sonabend said.

Rod Boyer has undergone five treatments with the implant that sits under his skin. The 60-year-old was diagnosed with glioblastoma in July 2022 and had surgery to remove the tumor. The cancer came back this past January.

“I didn’t have much hope,” he said. “That second tumor,  it was just more surgery, so this is a lot better deal.”

Patients are awake during each procedure. Boyer says he can feel the device at work in his head.

“It’s kind of like it clicks or pops or something,” he said. “And they told me it’s how you’d be able to hear it and it lasts for five minutes.”

That’s the sound of the ultrasound grid vibrating. It’s a process called sonication and it helps to temporarily open the blood-brain barrier.

“We use sound waves that arise from each of the nine ultrasound emitters that hit the brain,” Sonabend said. “The sound waves of similar power of the ultrasound we use for diagnostic purposes.”

Once the device is activated and sound waves emit, doctors inject what are called micro-bubbles into the blood stream.

“When the sound waves hit the bubbles, the bubbles oscillate, they vibrate, they burst, and they transiently make the brain permeable to drugs circulating in the blood,” Sonabend said.

With the blood brain barrier open, intravenous chemotherapy drugs infiltrate the brain.

“It’s about an hour time window during which drugs are very permeable,” Sonabend said.

Using the method, the researchers noted an increased volume of medicine made its way to areas of the brain often unreachable by surgery.

“We saw increases of approximately four to six-fold,” Sonabend said. “We’ve done this in all these patients. We target areas of the brain as a surgeon I cannot safely resect.”

“I had a scan two three weeks ago and the tumor was gone.”Boyer said. “He said there was hardly any sign at all. I just hope it keeps working like it has been.”

So far, results show the treatment is safe and well tolerated with some patients getting up to six cycles of chemo with the device. Doctors are now combining two separate cancer-fighting drugs using the novel method of delivery – with the hope patients will live longer.

More on the ongoing study here.