Elisa E. Konofagou | Treating Tumors Without Radiation

Elisa E. Konofagou
Associate Professor of Biomedical
Engineering and of Radiology
This profile is included in the publication Excellentia, which features current research of Columbia Engineering faculty members.
Photo by Eileen Barroso

A study in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that two-thirds of adults underwent medical tests in the last few years that exposed them to radiation and, in some cases, a higher risk of cancer. Elisa Konofagou, an associate professor of biomedical engineering and radiology, is pioneering new uses for an imaging technology that is radiation free, less expensive than CT scans and MRIs, yet just as effective: ultrasound. Moreover, she is going beyond ultrasound’s traditional application as a diagnostic tool, using it to treat diseases like cancer, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s.

In the area of oncology, Konofagou is developing a tool that could identify and destroy tumors without the need for surgery. Her technology, called harmonic motion imaging, uses ultrasound to probe soft tissue in search of abnormal growths. “You’re basically knocking on different parts of the organ until you detect a different amplitude in one particular location,” she says. She has found that ultrasound can distinguish benign from cancerous tumors and that its beam can be aimed with extreme precision to detect and ablate, or destroy, the abnormality. If proven effective, the technique could be used in inoperable cancers of the brain, prostate, pancreas, and kidneys.

In the area of neurology, Konofagou is deploying ultrasound to temporarily open the blood-brain barrier to help treat patients with diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and ALS. Currently, physicians have few good options when it comes to treating these patients. Their choices include direct injection deep into the brain or IV drugs, which flow across the entire brain, not just the diseased areas, causing severe side effects in some cases.

The technique Konofagou has pioneered sends ultrasound waves through a millimeter-specific brain region and the intact skull, causing that part of the blood-brain barrier to open. Medicine would be injected by IV and would reach only its intended target.

Konofagou has also deployed ultrasound in the field of cardiology. Konofagou’s myocardial elastography can identify and localize the portions of the heart that trigger atrial fibrillation. Following diagnosis, the same technique can be used to evaluate treatment, such as after using radiation-free ablation to restore the heart’s natural rhythm. In the future, she hopes her innovations may allow for an inexpensive, noninvasive screening test for heart disease. “I believe ultrasound can do anything,” she says. Each day, her research is bringing that statement closer and closer to reality.

B.S., Université de Paris VI (France), 1992; M.S., University of London, 1993; Ph.D., University of Houston, 1999

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