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Fighting cancer with ultrasound

Professor Ryan Harne (center) with graduate students Ningxiner Zhao (left) and Vivek Srinivas (right)Professor Ryan Harne (center) with graduate students Ningxiner Zhao (left) and Vivek Srinivas (right)

Ohio State researchers Ryan Harne, a mechanical and aerospace engineering professor, and Dr. Frederick Davidorf, a Wexner Medical Center ophthalmologist, have begun development on a prototype probe for ultrasound-based cancer surgery. The pair received donor funds to develop their prototype in late 2019. 

LSVR's Origami-Inspired Loudspeaker ArrayLSVR's Origami-Inspired Loudspeaker ArrayThe foundations for the technology began in 2015 with Harne’s research on origami-inspired structures. Early attention in this research was directed to applications of adaptive communications. Harne’s Laboratory of Sound and Vibration Research developed a two yard-long, shape-changing, origami-inspired loudspeaker array as a demonstration of the principles of foldable acoustic arrays that may guide and steer sound waves according to the folded shape. 

However, the attention was quickly redirected to the use of the folding structure concept to design small scale, medical ultrasound devices. There are many medical uses of ultrasound that could benefit by devices that may change from miniature folded configurations to larger deployed shapes. Together, Davidorf and Harne created the idea to use a reconfigurable ultrasound-focusing transducer to attack ocular melanoma, a cancer in the eye.

High intensity focused ultrasound (HIFU) is the practice of guiding intense sound waves through the body to a point location where high heat develops. This heat is used as a safe and minimally invasive way to ablate prostate cancer without the side effects of other cancer treatment methods–surrounding healthy tissue remains unharmed in a HIFU procedure.

The success of this emerging cancer treatment is promising. There is a 100% 5-year survival rate for HIFU treatment of prostate cancer. On the other hand, current HIFU probes are large and cannot access most cancers.

Harne holding the foldable transducerHarne holding the foldable transducerHarne and Davidorf’s idea is to design ultrasound probes that can articulate and fold, enabling a way for the probe to fold up into a highly compact shape. Then, the device may be inserted into the body through minimally invasive surgery and unfolded at the point of care, allowing the transducer to focus ultrasound energy on diseased tissue. 

“HIFU is demonstrating spectacular success treating prostate cancer. If you can take this fundamental technology and redesign it in a way that allows access all throughout the body, then there is a clear opportunity to broaden the impact of this cancer treatment procedure in a transformative way,” said Harne. 

The development of the probe isn’t without its challenges. The transducer must be small enough to best target cancerous tissue with the focused ultrasound, while the mechanical and material design complexity increases for the smaller transducer designs. 

These challenges have motivated Davidorf and Harne to collaborate with a major domestic manufacturer of HIFU equipment.

Once fully developed and tested, Harne and Davidorf hope their idea may give hope to millions by vastly increasing accessibility to a successful and proven, minimally-invasive, ultrasound-based cancer treatment. 


Sam Cejda, Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering