CNN Puts Focus on UVA’s ‘Scalpel Free’ Focused Ultrasound Treatment

January 26, 2023 By Josh Barney, Josh Barney,

A life-altering focused ultrasound procedure pioneered at the University of Virginia is on its way to becoming a much more familiar medical treatment to people across the world.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta, chief medical correspondent for CNN, recently visited UVA Health to witness the procedure performed to reduce the uncontrollable hand shaking suffered by Brenda Hric, 80. The result was a half-hour documentary broadcast to hundreds of millions around the globe on CNN International.

“What you’re about to see is remarkable, nearly inconceivable even 20 years ago,” Gupta said in the story introduction. “Brain surgery, but no scalpel, no incision and no blood. I’ve been a neurosurgeon for nearly a quarter-century, and I’ve never seen this.”

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The focused ultrasound approach concentrates powerful sound waves on a very specific part of the brain to reduce the uncontrollable shaking caused by essential tremor, a common movement disorder. The procedure is guided by magnetic resonance imaging in real time, allowing doctors to home in on exactly the right spot before making permanent changes to the brain.

Those who benefit from the treatment often enjoy a remarkable improvement – for example, renewing their ability to write and feed themselves – after a single session at UVA Health.

The results have produced a stunning “wow” factor for patients, the families and those seeing the results for the first time.

The focused ultrasound procedure was approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration for tremor after pivotal clinical testing led by UVA Health neurosurgeon Dr. Jeff Elias and colleagues. Elias also performed Hric’s procedure, which Gupta and his television crew followed step-by-step. They were joined by Dr. Neal Kassell, the head of the Charlottesville-based Focused Ultrasound Foundation and a longtime advocate for focused ultrasound and for UVA’s focused ultrasound research.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta meeting Brenda Hric

Dr. Sanjay Gupta, chief medical correspondent for CNN, greets Brenda Hric before her successful focused ultrasound procedure at UVA Health. The procedure dramatically reduced the uncontrollable hand shaking Hric has endured for years. (Photo by Kay Taylor, UVA Health)

“Procedures like Brenda’s are so rewarding. It was extra special that she shared it with Dr. Gupta and CNN,” Elias said. “While the technical aspects of the procedure are just part of our daily routine, we never forget the human element and the opportunity that we have to try to help someone.”

While Gupta’s story centers on an essential tremor procedure, it also highlights the vast potential of the focused ultrasound technology. For example, focused ultrasound could be used to briefly open the brain’s natural protective barrier to allow doctors to administer treatments, now impossible, for neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

The technology is already being tested at UVA for a wide array of applications. The pioneering research has shown such promise that UVA Health recently joined with the Focused Ultrasound Center to launch the Focused Ultrasound Cancer Immunotherapy Center, the world’s first center dedicated specifically to combining focused ultrasound and cancer immunotherapy to improve cancer care.

Illustration of a Rotunda on a microphone
Illustration of a Rotunda on a microphone

Gupta’s story on UVA’s cutting-edge focused ultrasound work aired across the globe the weekend after UVA unveiled plans for the Paul and Diane Manning Institute of Biotechnology. That new institute positions UVA at the forefront of cutting-edge medicine, such as cellular and gene therapies, that will revolutionize how diseases are treated and cured. Focused ultrasound is exactly the type of life-changing treatment that the Manning Institute will foster.

The institute has been made possible by a $100 million gift from the Mannings, longtime supporters of UVA and UVA Health, as well as a substantial initial investment of $50 million from the Commonwealth of Virginia and $150 million from UVA.

Those contributions came in recognition of UVA Health’s tremendous potential to overcome the limitations of modern medicine, to improve care for patients everywhere and to inspire hope – just as it did for Hric.

“I looked at my hand, and that was the first time I had been able to see my fingers still in about 20 years,” Hric said. “I think it was definitely a miracle, and I thank the Lord for it.”

Media Contact

Josh Barney

UVA Health