Historic breakthrough: WVU Rockefeller Neuroscience team first to use ultrasound to treat Alzheimer’s

Photo Courtesy of WVU Medicine

MORGANTOWN — World-leading brain experts at West Virginia University’s Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute are celebrating the historic breakthrough Alzheimer patients around the globe have been awaiting.

“For Alzheimer’s, there’s not that many treatments available, despite hundreds of clinical trials over the past two decades and billions of dollars spent,” said Dr. Ali R. Rezai, a neurosurgeon at WVU who led the team of investigators that successfully performed a phase II trial using focused ultrasound to treat a patient with early stage Alzheimer’s.

The WVU team tested the innovative treatment in collaboration with INSIGHTEC, an Israeli medical technology company. Earlier this year, INSIGHTEC was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to begin a phase II clinical trial of the procedure, and selected the WVU Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute as the first site in the United States for that trial.

Last summer, researchers at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto reported the results of a phase I safety trial showing they could reversibly open the blood-brain barrier in Alzheimer’s patients.

The procedure in West Virginia involved the use of ultrasound waves focused through a specialized helmet with more than 1,000 probes targeting a precise spot in the brain, Rezai explained, coupled with microscopic bubbles.

“And when we put a different frequency of ultrasound on the bubbles, they start osculating,” he said.

The reaction opens up the brain-blood barrier — a nearly impenetrable shield between the brain’s blood vessels and cells that make up brain tissue.

“It’s protected on one end for us to function but also prevents larger molecules or chemotherapy or medications or anti-bodies or immune system cells or amino therapy or stem cells to get in,” he said.

In this case, the West Virginia team targeted the hippocampus and the memory and cognitive centers of the brain that are impacted by plaques found in patients with Alzheimer’s.

“Plaques are these clusters of proteins that accumulate and they block-up the brain’s connectivity,” he said. “In animal studies it showed that these plaques are cleared with ultrasound technology.

The first patient, a person Rezai called a pioneer and hero, is West Virginia health care worker and former WVU Children’s Hospital Neonatal Intensive Care Unit nurse Judi Polak.

“I think that with Alzheimer’s there’s so much in the unknown and I’ve been with Health Science for a long time and I understand that we need to be able to step forward and look into the future,” Polak said.

But getting to this point was a long journey beginning five years ago when she was first diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s.

 

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