The Big Idea: NYU pioneers non-invasive cancer treatment with histotripsy

When Chrissy Martinez found out she had stage four pancreatic cancer that had metastasized to her liver, she was told by doctors that her time left twas limited.

"I was told by doctors that there's really not much they can do," Martinez said. "They put me on palliative care to buy me some time, and I wasn't okay with that."

After being rejected from several places, Martinez ended up at NYU Hospital, where she met with Dr. Brock Hewitt and his medical team. 

The medical team at NYU decided that Martinez would be a good cancer for a new non-invasive treatment called histotripsy.

"What histotripsy specifically is, it's focused ultrasound that mechanically destroys the tissue," said Dr. Hewitt. "It doesn't use radiation. It doesn't use heat. What it does is the focused radiation creates these tiny microbubbles, and those oscillate really fast. And what that does is that actually destroys the tissue."

According to Dr. Hewitt, histotripsy is being used to target liver tumors, and it can do that without damaging other tissue.

In clinical trials, the procedure has had a 95% success rate. It only takes about 15 minutes to an hour and is used in conjunction with other treatments. 

"It's typically combined what we would call systemic therapy which includes everything from chemotherapy to immunotherapy to targeted therapy," Dr. Hewitt said. "Very few patients have any what we would consider major complications."

Dr. Hewitt says once they knew they could manage Martinez's liver disease with histotripsy, the next step was performing a Whipple procedure to remove the cancer in other areas.

Now, with the treatment and other surgery behind her, Martinez is continuing chemotherapy to prevent the cancer from coming back. 

Dr. Hewitt is encouraging any patients with liver tumors to be evaluated for histotripsy, which one day may be used to treat other types of tumors as well.