This week, scientists have finally cracked one of the most difficult obstacles in modern medicine, getting drugs and other useful substances, through the blood-brain barrier.
The blood-brain barrier is a tight network that acts as a barrier between the brain and the rest of the body. Its function is to keep pathogens and other harmful molecules out of the brain, while allowing useful molecules through. It is very good at its job, so good in fact that it has prevented important medical advances because we simply couldn’t get through it in a non-invasive way.
For example, if someone has a cancerous tumour in their brain, normal anti-cancer drugs cannot attack it because of this barrier meaning that the only option, until now, has been very invasive procedures that are quite obviously potentially dangerous.
Ultrasound is not a new technology, it has been used to scan the wombs of pregnant women for decades to check the progress of the soon-to-be-baby’s development. What’s new about this whole thing is that for the first time, it has been used to allow chemotherapy drugs through the blood brain barrier.
Essentially it works by vibrating the barrier at a certain pitch so that the molecules could pass through it but crucially, when the procedure was finished, the blood-brain barrier returned to its original shape and was completely intact. As well as being non-invasive, it is also highly specific. That is to say, only a very small area of the barrier was compromised to allow the drug through.
This procedure is still very much in the early stages but its early results show promise! As well as being used in cancer treatment, doors have opened up already for other previously difficult to treat medical problems such as Alzheimer’s disease.
Arguably however, the best part of this whole thing is that they are naming it the ‘ultrasonic screwdriver’ which, as expected, put a massive grin on my Whovian face.
Hopefully it stays as a screwdriver and not turned into sunglasses though, because I have a feeling that seeing a real doctor dandering about the operation theatre wearing a pair of shades wouldn’t exactly be the most comforting thing to witness before succumbing to the anaesthetic…
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