The Big Idea: Harnessing Sound Waves to Treat Alzheimer's, Cancer and Other Chronic Diseases

Biomedical Engineering Professor Elisa Konofagou exploits the untapped potential of ultrasound technology

Jul 29 2020 | By Jesse Adams | ILLUSTRATION CREDIT: ULTRASOUND ELASTICITY IMAGING LABORATORY/COLUMBIA ENGINEERING

When it comes to diagnosing cardiac arrhythmias, the doctor's toolkit has been stuck in the 1950s—until now. While traditional electrocardiograms face fundamental limitations of function and accuracy, a new ultrasound-based technique from Professor Elisa Konofagou more reliably detects arrhythmias and precisely pinpoints them on 3D cardiac maps. It’s one of many pioneering projects Konofagou leads at her Ultrasound Elasticity Imaging Laboratory, where her team develops novel focused ultrasound techniques to noninvasively image and treat the living heart and brain.

What is the big idea animating your research?

My group is a little unusual in that we exploit non-invasive and non-ionizing technologies, such as ultrasound, not just for their ability to image the living body, but also as therapeutic interventions. That means we create imaging tools that allow us to identify sooner the early onset of pathologies such as heart disease and atherosclerosis, as well as deploy those tools in novel ways to treat diseases such as breast cancer, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. Why do we find this so exciting? Because non-invasive and non-ionizing technologies are extremely safe. They give off enough energy to heat or--in the case of tumors--destroy tissue structure in a precisely targeted way. But unlike, say, x-rays, they don’t have to use radiation to accomplish this.

What are some recent developments in your lab that you’re particularly excited about?

On the treatment front, one of the big aspects that we and others have uncovered is that ultrasound boosts the immune response of the subject with potential consequences to treatment of chronic disease from kidney disease to Alzheimer's. We do a lot of work around neurodegenerative diseases. For instance, right now we’re also beginning clinical trials of a promising new method for opening up the blood-brain barrier to directly treat Alzheimer’s.

What drew you into this field?

Ultrasound is a safe technology that is applied in utero but is otherwise under-utilized in the clinical world, where there’s just a wealth of data going untapped. Deploying the speed of sound at 1 mile per second in the human body generates thousands of images per second. That’s fast enough to capture transient effects, illuminating important, real time information on organ function. By better elucidating the underlying physics and the signal processing behind this technology, we hope to help develop its full potential, improving outcomes for countless patients in the process.