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The Power of Sound

SHARYL ATTKISSON: When you think of sound, you probably think of noises you can hear. In medicine, though, it's the sounds you can't hear that have the greatest benefit. For years, silent, high frequency sound waves called ultrasound have given parents a sneek-peek at their unborn babies, and doctors, a realtime look at beating hearts. Now, as Healthweek's Andrew Holtz discovered, there are some amazing new uses in the pipeline.

ANDREW HOLTZ: Now hear this...

WOMAN: Eek! Eek! [POP!]

ANDREW HOLTZ: No doubt, sound can pack a wallop.

MAN 1: Ahh!

MAN 2: Doctor?

MAN 1: Ahh.

ANDREW HOLTZ: And now it seems the imaginations of movie makers may be barely ahead of medical researchers who are transforming the familiar ultrasound probe from a camera into a scalpel. Their first target, prostate enlargement, a non-cancerous condition that interferes with urination in many older men. Gary Ellsworth grew tired of having to put down his woodworking tools in order to heed the far too frequent call of nature.

GARY ELLSWORTH: I added it up -- 23 times in one day. I said, "this is ridiculous. I gotta do something about this."

ANDREW HOLTZ: Gary was ready to submit to conventional surgery to cut away excess prostate tissue. Then his urologist told him of an experimental device being tested at the University of Indiana that uses ultrasound to heat and shrink prostate tissue.

GARY ELLSWORTH: I said, "Well, is there any bleeding, any incision? He said, "No." And I said, "Well, sign me up!"

ANDREW HOLTZ: Just as a magnifying glass focuses sunlight into a hotspot, the ultrasound energy burns tissue only at the target point.

DR. RICHARD FOSTER, INDIANA UNIVERSITY: Because of the way the tissue is destroyed, there is no bleeding, and that therefore is not a potential post-operative complication.

GARY ELLSWORTH: The doctor was standing at the end of the table and I said, "Well, Doc, I missed everything. I didn't feel any pain."

ANDREW HOLTZ: Within a few days, Gary resumed his exercise routine of running. And, he can last four times as long before running to the bathroom. Although the procedure is already approved for wide-scale use in Europe and Japan, it's still being tested in the U.S. Here in a lab at the University of Washington, researchers are trying to tune-in the sounds of the future, including a type of ultrasonic gadget that may be able to stop internal bleeing from outside a patient's body.

MAN: Is it mega ohms?

ANDREW HOLTZ: The pioneering work of Bioengineer Larry Crum and his team began with hopes of saving soldiers on the battlefield or motorists in crashes. A portable ultrasound device would first detect the site of internal bleeding, and then stop it. Perhaps buying enough time to get to a trauma center.

LARRY CRUM, PhD, UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON: Think of Princess Diana. If they could have done something to her right there, the technology that we are developing, they could have stopped her bleeding. She bled to death.

ANDREW HOLTZ: The Seattle researchers have stopped severe bleeding in animal experiments.

DR. STEVE CARTER, UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON: We'll focus the sound waves. It elevates the temperature, and this will cause the bleeding to stop, or at least slow down.

ANDREW HOLTZ: And that's not all! Another long-term goal is to use ultrasound to destroy malignant tumors buried within livers, kidneys, or even the brain without having to cut open the patient. As this demonstration shows, that's possible, because this new breed of devices kills tissue only at the tiny spot where high-intensity sound waves are focused. But before ultrasonic scalpels can take their places in cancer wards or paramedic kits, researchers must conquer substantial hurdles, like improving their aim.

DR. STEVE CARTER: Well, the risk is, you could harm normal tissue, and this is something we don't want to do.

ANDREW HOLTZ: Yet the raw power of focused sound energy beckons researchers to look beyond the engineering challenges to the promise of ultrasonic devices.

LARRY CRUM, PhD, UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON: We are not very far away from Star Trek.

DR. McCOY: Chemotherapy.

LARRY CRUM, PhD, UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON: You see on Star Trek, the guy does the little scans and repairs. We're actually doing that with focused surgery, if you think about it.

DR. McCOY: He's coming around, Jim.

SHARYL ATTKISSON: Keep in mind, that sound surgery for enlarged prostates is still experimental. That means you probably can't get it at your local hospital. But drugs and several other procedures are already widely available. For more information on sound surgery, or any other Healthweek story, you can call our toll-free number shown at the end of the program.

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