Weston grant benefits Sunnybrook's groundbreaking brain disorder research

Liz Braun, Toronto Sun 3 minute read March 3, 2020

A $16.7 million grant from the W. Garfield Weston Foundation will help revolutionize the treatment of brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s, ALS and brain cancer.

The grant, made through the Weston Brain Institute, will establish the Weston Family Focused Ultrasound Initiative at Sunnybrook.

Focused ultrasound is a technology that allows access to the brain (and other areas of the body) with pinpoint accuracy, targeting tumors or delivering therapies without invasive surgery.

Focused ultrasound, or FUS, has been compared to using of a magnifying glass to focus light.

When focused, sound waves generate heat which can be concentrated on minute bits of brain tissue — either to zap malfunctioning circuits or make drug delivery possible.

Much of the pioneering work in FUS has been done by Dr. Kullervo Hynynen, who came to Sunnybrook in 2006.

Now Vice President of Research and Innovation, Dr. Hynynen pioneered the technology for FUS in non-invasive surgery to treat neurological disorders.

He has been working on brain research for 30 years.

In a brief phone interview, Dr. Hynynen explained that he had been working with the Weston group for some time and had grants to develop the technology in the past.

As current techniques rely on the use of MRI machines, the number of patients that can be treated is limited.

With this generous new grant, he said, treatment will be possible for many more patients.

“And it will cost less money, and can be used in countries where they don’t have such advanced health care,” he said.

This investment will take the technical advances of the last 10 years and move everything forward quickly.

Sunnybrook has a long list of world-firsts with FUS technology — including ground-breaking work to open the blood-brain barrier and non-invasively deliver chemotherapy directly to patients with brain cancer.

According to Clinical Trials Ontario, the blood-brain barrier blocks toxins (and most drugs) from entering the brain.

With the use of FUS, the barrier can safely and temporarily be opened, enabling therapy delivery to a precise target inside.

Sunnybrook was first in the world to receive approval to use FUS to open the blood-brain barrier to treat Alzheimer’s. Current clinical trials study the use of FUS for depression, OCD, Parkinson’s, ALS and more.

The grant from the Westons spearheads a $33-million initiative to develop and bring novel FUS technology to Canadians. The Weston Family Initiative will accelerate development of a powerful new FUS device to enable the personalized treatment of brain disorders as never before.

A team led by Dr. Hynynen is completing a prototype of that device.

As part of the initiative, Sunnybrook’s clinical team, led by neurosurgeon Dr. Nir Lipsman, will test the device across three brain disorders: Alzheimer’s disease, breast cancer that has spread to the brain, and glioblastoma the deadliest and most common brain tumour).

“This technology holds tremendous promise for patients with difficult-to-treat brain disorders like Alzheimer’s disease, brain cancer and ALS, where the blood-brain barrier is a major obstacle,” said Dr. Lipsman. “These are some of the most complex disorders that have no effective treatments, so we’re excited to move closer to testing the device in clinical trials.

“The impact of this technology on patient care will be felt across Canada and around the world.”