Jason Raymond arrived at Boston University to study engineering acoustics, thinking he’d maybe have a career in designing loudspeakers.
Amar Bose, acoustics engineering genius and founder of Bose Corp., was across the river at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, after all. Maybe he could attend a lecture or take a course with him.
Instead, Raymond made waves in a different way. He landed in a Harvard Medical School lab led by a pioneer developing focused ultrasound for use in medical treatments — pinpointing soundwaves to perform noninvasive surgery, even in the brain, without so much as touching a scalpel.
More than two decades later, Raymond is still focused on ultrasound. He recently joined the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC as a research assistant professor and manager of its ultrasound facilities.
He will help guide Virginia Tech research teams in advancing the technology to defeat cancer and treat other diseases.
“Twenty years ago, it seemed like the ideas for clinical applications were pretty well advanced, even if the technology was in its infancy,” Raymond said. “What I didn’t understand as a young scientist is that this would open up the door to so many new treatments and impact on hundreds of different indications.”
Focused ultrasound uses the same soundwaves physicians use to examine a baby in the womb. But similar to how a magnifying glass focuses sunlight to a small point, it uses acoustic focusing to concentrate sound waves to a spot as tiny as millimeter across. At high intensities, focused ultrasound can ablate tissue, including in the brain. At low intensities, it can alter the electrical activity in a network of neurons in the brain to potentially change behaviors.
The Fralin Biomedical Research Institute facilities include a high intensity Insightec Exablate Neuro system that can be used for noninvasive neurosurgery, as well as a low-intensity system for research purposes. That technology is paired with a Siemens MAGNETOM Prisma 3T magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) system to visually aim the ultrasound.
Raymond first studied the technology as a postgraduate with Kullervo Hynynen, a pioneer who invented a way to allow ultrasound waves to penetrate the skull and effectively focus on regions deep inside the brain.
Raymond moved on to the National Center for Physical Acoustics at the University of Mississippi, where he worked on a project for the U.S. Army that attempted to use focused ultrasound to coagulate blood and halt bleeding in battlefield conditions.
“We didn’t succeed in deploying this for combat casualty care applications, but we were pushing the envelope, and the U.S. Department of Defense funding really contributed to making advancements in the technological aspects at the time,” he said.
Raymond then returned to doctoral studies at the University of Cincinnati, where he studied how injected microbubble pharmaceuticals can be used in combination with ultrasound to make the bubbles expand and contract to enhance drug delivery in human tissue. That process is now studied as a means of opening the blood brain barrier, which normally serves to protect the brain from toxins, but also inhibits the penetration of drugs that may be beneficial to treating a brain tumor. Focused ultrasound is also being explored as a cancer treatment in which the bubbles in a tumor collapse and destroy it, including in multiple labs at Virginia Tech.
Raymond completed his postdoctoral studies in Europe, at the University of Oxford, where he became a lecturer and senior researcher and helped establish a physical acoustics lab to research the physics of ultrasound, including its biological and chemical effects on tissue.
He was familiar with the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute because of focused ultrasound research taking place at the institute almost a decade ago. Jamie Tyler and a young postdoctoral associate, Wynn Legon, published a paper in Nature Neuroscience that described how focused ultrasound could be used to modify human brain activity that also resulted in changes in behavior. The study leapt ahead of the previous understanding of what ultrasound could do and took years to be accepted.
Tyler went on to found a company and is now at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Legon is now an assistant professor at the research institute exploring how ultrasound changes brain cell activity and how that can be used treat chronic pain and addiction.
He’s one of several Virginia Tech researchers working with the technology.
Today, the field that was in its infancy when Raymond joined is still growing, with two international scientific meetings on focused ultrasound with hundreds of attendees, including one hosted by the Focused Ultrasound Foundation, which is headquartered just two hours away in Charlottesville.
“At this point the field is quite big, and Virginia Tech is well known and well respected within it due in part to the breadth of applications being investigated,” Raymond said.
Raymond would also like to see the research institute develop its potential as a treatment center should clinicians become interested in utilizing the technology — while primarily collaborating with researchers across Virginia Tech to advance use of focused ultrasound for a range of indications.
“I don’t think we have hit the peak of excitement for and awareness of focused ultrasound. I want to educate people here and try to open up more and more applications this technology can be used for,” he said. “We have a lot of knowledge here in the groups working in focused ultrasound. I want to try bring all of that together, expand those collaborations, and help us be even better.”
– Leigh Anne Kelley