In 2006, Dr. Neal Kassell, Professor of Neurosurgery and Co-chair of the Department of Neurosurgery at the University of Virginia, founded the Focused Ultrasound Foundation in hopes of improving the lives of millions of people worldwide by accelerating the development and adoption of focused ultrasound as a treatment option for debilitating medical conditions.
In just 15 years, Dr. Kassell and the Foundation team have worked to support research; share information and broaden awareness among patients and physicians; foster collaboration; establish standards; and overcome barriers to push focused ultrasound technology forward as a global standard of care.
In honor of their 15th anniversary, we spoke with Dr. Kassell about the evolution of the Foundation, transformational patient stories, and what’s next for the world of focused ultrasound.
Q: What was it that spurred you to take the step to create the Focused Ultrasound Foundation?
When I first learned about focused ultrasound technology, I understood it was a highly disruptive, game-changing technology that could impact millions of lives. However, the evolution of disruptive therapeutic technologies from idea or concept and laboratory research to widespread adoption is a glacial process that often takes decades.
Every month that goes by that a technology like this is not available translates into unnecessary disability and suffering for countless people. We had to find a way to shorten the time between laboratory research to widespread utilization, which the Foundation works to do.
Q: When you first started the Foundation, what was your vision for what it could do?
We set out to improve the lives of millions of people around the world with serious medical disorders by creating a revolution in therapy using focused ultrasound. Back then, this was a bold and audacious idea, but, fast forward 15 years and the Foundation has been much more successful – and the field has grown more rapidly – than we ever anticipated. The revolution clearly has already begun.
Q: How has our understanding of the potential for focused ultrasound changed over the years? Why do you think interest in focused ultrasound has grown so much faster than people could have imagined?
To create a revolution, you must create a movement. We’ve been able to amalgamate our 45 exceptional Foundation team members, our Board, Council, donors, and all the other stakeholders we interact with, into a force that is driving the field forward like nobody has seen before.
To put it into perspective, ten years ago we understood just three mechanisms of action of how focused ultrasound could affect tissue. Today, there are more than 25. And ten years ago, there were only three clinical indications in various stages of research and development and commercialization. Today, there are nearly 160. Ten years ago, there were only five manufacturers of focused ultrasound equipment. Today, there are 59.
Q: What obstacles still stand in the way of the revolution of focused ultrasound? How is the Foundation working to overcome them?
While there has been a lot of progress, there remain numerous obstacles. Reimbursement from commercial and government sources is a challenge, but reimbursement options like Medicare, Aetna, and Blue Cross Blue Shield exist for some indications. In terms of FDA-approval, a lot of rigorous scientific evidence must be accumulated for long-term feasibility, safety, efficacy, access and cost to achieve this status.
The way the Foundation operates is that on at least a quarterly basis, we look at the critical path from laboratory research to widespread utilization to try and understand where the choke points are. It might be technology development, or it might be reimbursement – we identify the barriers, the choke points, and then we apply resources. We focus on overcoming barriers where the Foundation has adequate resources to actually do a good job.
Q: Are there any specific patient stories that have been transformational for you?
After the initial pilot study for the treatment of ET, 15 focused ultrasound patients and their families joined us in Charlottesville for a lunch with Dr. Jeffrey Elias and the rest of the University of Virginia team. During the lunch, one of the patients stood up and told those of us in the room that she had been disabled for 20 years due to essential tremor and said, “I couldn’t drink a cup of coffee. I couldn’t button my shirt. I couldn’t tie my shoes. I couldn’t go to a restaurant, couldn’t eat soup or cereal. I couldn’t go to church. I received focused ultrasound treatment, and I came out cured. It was a miracle.” She then held up her glass of iced tea, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the room.
Q: Can you share which accomplishment at the Foundation you are most proud?
We have already made so much progress, but we also understand that our to-do list will always keep growing. This is not because we’re slacking off, but because the field is growing so rapidly. However, I am extremely proud that we have been able to bring together and motivate this amazing group of people who make checking things off the list possible. Each member of the Foundation’s team, Board, Council, and our donors has the core belief that the purpose of life is helping other people, and that the Foundation represents a once in a lifetime opportunity to help millions.
Q: In what ways can people get involved and show their support of the Foundation?
The best thing that people can do is become informed and share that information. Go to the Foundation’s website or explore Insightec’s website to learn about focused ultrasound, then go and tell other people about it. The Foundation lives off philanthropic support, so any contributions are always welcome.
Our Insightec team is proud to partner with the Focused Ultrasound Foundation and we look forward to more exciting developments over the next 15 years. To learn more about Dr. Neal Kassell and how to add to the force that is the Foundation, visit their website today: https://www.fusfoundation.org/.