Laser Will Melt Your Brain (Tumor, That Is)

An MRI-guided high-intensity laser probe can target tumors that are otherwise inaccessible to doctors.

THE GIST

New lasers are being used to cook brain tumors to death.

The lasers can treat other tumors as well, even in children.

A laser beam has been developed that can cook brain tumors. The research from Washington University could help save the lives of people with, until now, inoperable brain tumors, and could soon be extended to destroy other tumors in other parts of the body without resorting to surgery.

"This tool gives us a treatment for patients with tumors that were previously deemed inoperable," said Eric Leuthardt, a doctor at Washington University. "It offers hope to certain patients who had few or no options before."

The patient the Missouri doctors operated on had a recurrent and life threatening brain tumor. Because of the prior surgeries, and the location of the tumor deep inside the brain, normal surgery was not an option. Since the surgeons couldn't cut the tumor out, they decided to cook it to death.

Last month the Washington University surgeons drilled a small burr hole, about the diameter of a pencil, into the patient's skull. Using the MRI machine to guide them, the surgeons carefully directed the narrow and flexible laser probe through the brain and into the tumor.

The laser emerges from the probe at a 90 degree angle, so once it is in the correct position all the doctor had to do was heat the golf ball-sized tumor, essentially cooking it to death at 140 degrees F.

While the tumor cooked, the doctors used the MRI machine to make sure the temperature of the surrounding cells was low enough so the healthy cells survived.

"The patient did pretty well," said Leuthardt. "He went home three days later, instead of spending one to two weeks in the ICU."

Barnes-Jewish Hospital, where the operation took place, is the third hospital in the country to zap brain tumors with lasers. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved lasers for neurosurgery in May 2009.

This is just the latest use for laser technology, said Richard Ellenbogen, the chief of neurosurgery at the University of Washington. Ellenbogen has used lasers to treat tumors in children.

"The beauty of this technology is that you can bend the light and use it to access areas that you otherwise couldn't," said Ellenbogen.

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