[Updated 1/28/21; originally published 10/30/20]
As we begin this new year, we are awed by the resilience of the entire focused ultrasound community despite the unpredictable nature of the past 12 months. The COVID-19 pandemic has had a dramatic impact on all our lives – our homes, our families, our businesses, and our health have all been affected. The focused ultrasound community is no exception.
As the SARS-CoV-2 virus began to spread globally in early 2020, focused ultrasound laboratories around the world shut down, clinical trials were halted, and employees of the many focused ultrasound companies moved to remote work. Because most focused ultrasound procedures were deemed “elective,” for many months most patients were unable to access focused ultrasound treatments for essential tremor, pain or even cancer.
With the shuttering of laboratories came delays in critical research and a costly loss in resources (e.g., preclinical tumor models) that pushed back timelines for promising therapeutic advancements. The pause in clinical trials and commercial focused ultrasound treatments also threatened the companies and hospitals at the forefront of this field pioneering new therapies. No one within our community of researchers, clinicians, industry, patients, and advocates has been left untouched.
Yet the ingenuity and spirit of the community has remained strong, as researchers, physicians, and industry have continued to focus where they can – moving lab meetings, patient consults, and business development meetings online, providing educational and awareness-building webinars to grow our community, and even directing laboratory and manufacturing resources like personal protective equipment to those in critical need.
It's likely that in some ways the community has been busier than ever. We saw a record number of abstracts submitted to our 7th International Symposium on Focused Ultrasound, held virtually in November 2020, and expect that the dissemination of key results there and in subsequent publications will continue to propel the field towards new and improved therapies for patients.
For several US-based companies and the Foundation, the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) has offered a much-needed lifeline to allow operations to continue without furloughs or layoffs. New policies put in place by the NIH and the Foundation have ensured that funded researchers would have the support needed to continue their critical projects once their laboratories reopened. The FDA and other regulatory bodies, despite their reduced bandwidth, are working with industry to keep the clock moving towards new, approved focused ultrasound clinical applications.
As restrictions were lifted in many countries and states over the summer months, we saw laboratories coming back online, important clinical trials restarting, and some workers returning to offices. As our healthcare system seeks to rebuild, focused ultrasound is well positioned to help address the challenges of our "new normal." Focused ultrasound treatments are noninvasive, with less risk of infection than the alternatives. Focused ultrasound treatments are also typically outpatient procedures, not taking up much-needed hospital beds. With no ionizing radiation and no systemic toxicity, focused ultrasound is less likely to impair a patient's immune system, which could make them more susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 or other pathogens. Patients considering focused ultrasound treatment should feel confident that they can maintain their treatment plan without additional risk.
Of course, there is reason for optimism with the first vaccines becoming available, and their development in record time shines a light on how public-private investments, unprecedented collaboration, and a collective sense of urgency can accelerate the timelines for critical biomedical advances. These principles guide the Foundation in our own efforts to bring life-changing and life-saving technology to patients as quickly as possible.
Although this global health and economic crisis is far from over, the focused ultrasound community has demonstrated great resilience over the past several months, and we will all continue to rise to face the challenges ahead because we know that patients are counting on us. The Foundation is proud to stand with and support our community as we all strive to continue saving time and saving lives.
Commentary: Can Low-Intensity Pulsed Ultrasound Treat Discrete Pulmonary Lesions in Patients With COVID-19?
In a new opinion piece, Drs. Francesco Prada and Frederic Padilla, along with collaborators from Italy, suggest using low-intensity pulsed focused ultrasound as a bedside tool to evaluate and treat lung lesions caused by the novel coronavirus of 2019 (COVID-19). This tool could reduce lung inflammation and fibrosis in patients with moderate-to-severe COVID-19–related pneumonia. See the Journal of Ultrasound in Medicine >
Jessica Foley, PhD, is the Chief Scientific Officer at the Focused Ultrasound Foundation.