Sunnybrook Research Institute: Progress from Laboratory to Clinic


In just a few years, the Sunnybrook Research Institute in Toronto has grown into a translational research powerhouse, helping to advance the field of focused ultrasound in both the laboratory and the clinic. The group is headed by pioneering physicist Kullervo Hynynen, PhD, who has been conducting research in the field for more than 30 years, has over 300 publications, and was instrumental in the development of the first clinical system for MR-guided focused ultrasound.

Hynynen and_FUSF_StaffDr. Hynynen visited the Focused Ultrasound Foundation in March to meet with our scientific team, explore collaborations on brain research, and share the la projects emanating from his laboratory, situated within the Centre for Research in Image-Guided Therapeutics.

Hynynen leads a team of more than 50 engineers, scientists, students, and technicians who design and systems, conduct preclinical studies, and facilitate clinical research at Sunnybrook and other hospitals in Toronto. His world-class facility has 3,000 square feet of focused ultrasound laboratory space, with access to three dedicated research magnets (1.5T and two 3T), CT scanners, several homebuilt transducer systems, and access to both Philips Sonalleve and InSightec ExAblate Neuro focused ultrasound systems.

“Kullervo and his team have a wide range of expertise in terms of the bioeffects of focused ultrasound and the different clinical applications of the technology,” says Jessica Foley, PhD the Foundation’s Chief Scientific Officer. “He has been an incredible advocate for advancing the technology, attracting funding from a range of sources to build the infrastructure, and producing talented scientists able to tackle any new challenge in focused ultrasound.”

The center is exploring avenues to expand the technical capabilities of focused ultrasound. Dr. Hynynen’s team has spent many years optimizing the use of focused ultrasound to facilitate the delivery of drugs – via carrier vehicles such as liposomes, and also through opening the blood brain barrier – which has led to clinical trials. They have developed computer models and prototyping methods to enable the production of fully steerable transducer arrays with thousands of elements to expand the areas of the body that can be safely and practically treated with FUS.

The team at Sunnybrook continues to trail blaze new applications of this non-invasive technology by partnering with industry, clinicians, and the Focused Ultrasound Foundation, which is funding several clinical trials in Toronto.

“We have created a hub of collaboration with many specialties, like neurosurgery, radiology, medical oncology, and cardiology, all directed toward expanding ways to apply this platform technology to medical challenges,” says Dr. Hynynen.

Drug Delivery

Sunnybrook researchers are exploring focused ultrasound to treat Alzheimer’s disease, a potentially game-changing application of the technology. The group is making great progress in using focused ultrasound to open the blood-brain barrier for the delivery of antibodies that reduce the amount of damaging plaques that build up in the brain. They were also the first to show that repeated imaging-guided focused ultrasound treatments alone improved spatial memory in a mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease. They hope to work up to larger animal models and soon translate their findings to human clinical trials. “I would be very happy if we treated Alzheimer’s patients in two years,” he says.

His group has also presented promising preclinical data on the use of focused ultrasound to deliver chemotherapy directly to tumors through heat-sensitive liposomes.

Clinical Trials

On the clinical front, the group at Sunnybrook participated in the Essential Tremor Pivotal Study and is currently partnering with colleagues on several clinical trials assessing focused ultrasound to:

  • treat uterine fibroids and bone metastases at Sunnybrook’s Odette Cancer Centre (funded by industry)
  • alleviate pain from pediatric osteoid osteoma at the Hospital for Sick Children (funded by the Focused Ultrasound Foundation)
  • continue to treat essential tremor through an expanded access program (funded by industry)
  • treat Parkinson’s dyskinesia at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre (funded by the Focused Ultrasound Foundation and the Michael J. Fox Foundation)
  • open the blood-brain barrier to enable the delivery of chemotherapy to brain tumors at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre (funded by the Focused Ultrasound Foundation)

“I expect that the clinical use of MRI-guided focused ultrasound will accelerate over the next few years and change the way many people are treated,” said Dr. Hynynen.