An early stage medical technology is being touted as having the ability to treat a range of medical conditions, but with just one problem: it's hard to find.

Focused ultrasound (FUS) is FDA-approved to treat three medical conditions and under investigation to treat dozens more. Recently this week, surgeon Dr. Sanjay Gupta explored the topic of FUS as an experimental treatment for Parkinson’s disease.

But the needed equipment costs hundreds of thousands of dollars and is tough to find, limiting potentially lifesaving research.

Vanderbilt University’s William Grissom, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, and Charles Caskey, assistant professor of radiology, are throwing open doors with a do-it-yourself, open-source software and hardware guide so that researchers can convert imaging machines into FUS and find their own applications.

“It’s just cranking the power way up on a regular ultrasound system and using a lower frequency than with imaging ultrasound,” Grissom said. “You can put a lot of focused energy into one place, and the mechanical acoustic energy is converted into heat. The heat is what ends up killing the targeted tissue, with no damage to the intervening tissue.”

So far, FUS is used to treat bone metastases, uterine fibroids and prostate tumours. In addition to not harming surrounding tissue, it requires no incisions and, unlike metal devices that must be inserted into the body, is usable with magnetic resonance guidance so surgeons can see what they’re targeting.

The project was funded through a U.S. Department of Defence grant to investigate whether FUS could be used to train the immune system to kill the body’s cancers, leveraging what’s called the abscopal effect.

“The most successful methods have been in the form of viral DNA,” Grissom said. “But a number of people have been researching whether we can use FUS to amplify its effectiveness and target it better.”

The instructions for hardware and the needed software are downloadable for free on the Vanderbilt University Institute for Imaging Science website. The hardware costs about $10,000, mostly for the MR-compatible transducer and amplifier and the function generator, Grissom said.

Making the information widely available will be a boon to research, Caskey said.

“The lack of well-described, accessible, pre-clinical focused ultrasound systems limits progress and decreases repeatability of new developments,” he told the Focused Ultrasound Foundation. “Our open-source system can deliver repeatable, precise, and quantifiable thermal and mechanical focused ultrasound over an extended period in small animals.”