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Sonic Scalpel Aimed at Surgeries of Tomorrow

A sonic scalpel could become the newest tool in the operating room. Researchers have developed a lens of sorts that manipulates sound into a focused pulse, which could precisely target tumors.

Using sound as a medical tool isn’t new. For example, it’s used in ultrasound to create those first glimpses of babies in the womb. And the high-power versions are used alongside chemotherapy and radiation to treat cancer.

Current technology, however, is not very precise, said Alessandro Spadoni, who is one of the researchers developing this technology at the California Institute of Technology. “This is a problem because you can actually damage healthy tissue,” he said.

Sound bullets

The new apparatus creates compact acoustic pulses, or what the researchers refer to as “sound bullets.”

The device consists of an aluminum container about the size of loose-leaf paper, inside of which are rows of metal balls, each the size of an M&M.

Similar to what happens when you hold a magnifying glass outside on a sunny day, the acoustic lens focuses sound so that each sound wave meets up at the same place at the same time, creating a powerful beam.

To dial in the beam’s destination, “all you have to do is squeeze these rows of spheres by different amounts,” Spadoni told TechNewsDaily. Squeezing the rows is similar to “thickening or thinning a lens for light,” he said.

By pressing the sound-bullet box up to a person's skin, a doctor could send the destructive sound waves to a particular target inside the body, Spadoni said.

Tumor removal

The technology could serve as a sonic scalpel for heating and excising tumors.

There’s still a lot to be done before this new lens makes it to the operating room. The prototype lens was more of a “proof-of-principle” and several things need to be done before it’s commercialized, Spadoni said.

The device is detailed online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Michelle writes about technology and chemistry for Live Science. She has a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry from the Salisbury University, a Bachelor of Chemical Engineering from the University of Delaware and a degree in Science Journalism from New York University. She is an active Muay Thai kickboxer at Five Points Academy and loves exploring NYC with friends.