Breaching the Blood-Brain Barrier

Researchers deliver cancer-fighting drugs to a patient’s brain via the bloodstream, penetrating the blood-brain barrier for the first time.

Jef Akst
Jef Akst

Jef Akst was managing editor of The Scientist, where she started as an intern in 2009 after receiving a master’s degree from Indiana University in April 2009 studying the mating behavior of seahorses.

View full profile.

Learn about our editorial policies.

FLICKR, JON OLAV EIKENESThe key to breaching the last great biochemical barricade in the body—the blood-brain barrier, a tightly packed layer of cells critical for keeping pathogens and toxins out of the central nervous system—was sound. A team at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto injected a chemotherapy drug along with tiny gas bubbles into the bloodstream of a patient, then trained ultrasound waves on her skull, causing the bubbles to expand and contract at a rate of about 200,000 times a second and punch temporary holes in the endothelial cell layer of the blood-brain barrier, Focused Ultrasound Foundation announced this week (November 9).

“Opening the barrier is really of huge importance. It is probably the major limitation for innovative drug development for neurosciences,” Bart De Strooper, codirector of the Leuven Institute for Neuroscience and Disease in Belgium, told New Scientist.

The patient, 56-year-old Bonny Hall,...

The ultrasound-based technique will now be tested in up to 10 additional patients already scheduled for surgery to remove parts of their brain tumors. Longer term, the researchers anticipate that the strategy could benefit more than just brain cancer patients. “Breaching this barrier opens up a new frontier in treating brain disorders,” Neal Kassell, chairman of the Focused Ultrasound Foundation, said in a press release. “We are encouraged by the momentum building for the use of focused ultrasound to non-invasively deliver therapies for a number of brain disorders,” including Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and some psychiatric diseases.

Interested in reading more?

The Scientist ARCHIVES

Become a Member of

Receive full access to more than 35 years of archives, as well as TS Digest, digital editions of The Scientist, feature stories, and much more!
Already a member?