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High intensity focused ultrasound (HIFU)

High intensity focused ultrasound (HIFU) is a treatment that aims to kill cancer cells with high frequency sound waves. HIFU doesn't pass through solid bone or air, so it's not suitable for every cancer.

What it is

You have this treatment from a machine that gives off high frequency sound waves. These waves deliver a strong beam to a specific part of a cancer. Some cells die when this high intensity ultrasound beam is focused directly onto them.

Because it only uses sound waves to kill the cancer cells, it doesn’t have as many side effects as other types of cancer treatments.

When HIFU is used

HIFU is only useful to treat a single tumour or part of a large tumour. It can't be used to treat tumours that are more widespread. This means that HIFU is not suitable for people with cancer that has spread to more than one place in their body.

Why you might have it

HIFU is sometimes used to treat the following cancers:
 

Because the prostate is positioned deep within the pelvis, you have HIFU for prostate cancer by putting an ultrasound probe (transrectal probe) into your back passage. This is done under a general anaesthetic or spinal anaesthetic. From that position, the ultrasound can direct beams more accurately at the prostate. 

Research shows that HIFU has fewer side effects such as incontinence and erection problems. It also shows that HIFU may be as successful in treating prostate cancer as treatment with radical prostatectomy or radiotherapy.

However, we also have to be sure that the long term results will be as good as surgery or radiotherapy. The treatment hasn't been around long enough for us to know that yet.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) have issued guidelines for the treatment of prostate cancer.

Generally HIFU for prostate cancer is given as part of a clinical trial, however in some circumstances it could be given outside of a trial.

You might be offered HIFU instead of surgery or radiotherapy for localised prostate cancer.

Doctors have used it for cancer that has just been diagnosed, or for cancer that has come back in the prostate after earlier treatment. This is known as slavage treatment.  

Your doctors should make sure you know:

  • what is involved in having the treatment
  • that we don't know everything about side effects yet
  • that we don't fully understand how long term effects of HIFU compare to other treatments
  • what other treatment options there are

Doctors must monitor all the patients who have HIFU. This is so that we can learn more about side effects and long term benefits.

You sign a consent form to say that all these things have been explained to you before you have treatment.

Reseachers are interested in looking at HIFU for early and advanced kidney cancer.

Researchers have looked HIFU for primary liver cancer (hepatocellular cancer, HCC) and cancer that has spread to the liver (secondary liver cancer).

More research is needed to see if using HIFU for primary liver cancer is better than standard treatments.

Researchers also want to find out if HIFU is helpful in combination with other treatments for primary liver cancer. And to see if HIFU helps control symptoms for advanced disease.

Doctors outside the UK have used HIFU to help pain and other symptoms in people with advanced pancreatic cancer. It is not being used to cure pancreatic cancer.

Surgery is still the first choice of treatment for people with pancreatic cancer that has not spread to other parts of the body.

Outside the UK doctors are interested in treating people with bladder cancer with HIFU. At the moment, if the cancer comes back these doctors use surgery as standard treatment.

Side effects of HIFU

People who have been treated with HIFU so far have had very few side effects.

It may cause some discomfort or pain for 3 to 4 days afterwards. It may also cause soreness in the skin or back passage depending on the area being treated, but this is mild and doesn't last long. It's unusual for the soreness to be ongoing or severe.

Clinical trials

Doctors are interested in researching HIFU for people with different cancer types. 

Last reviewed: 
20 Aug 2015
  • Cancer Research UK Clinical Trials Database

  • EASL-EORTC clinical practice guidelines: management of hepatocellular carcinoma

    European Association for the Study of the Liver and European Organisation for Research and Treatment of Cancer, 2012

  • Focal therapy using high-intensity focused ultrasound for localised prostate cancer

    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), 2012

  • High intensity focused ultrasound (HIFU) in localized prostate cancer treatment

    M Alkhorayef and others

    Polish Journal of Radiology, 2015

    Volume 80

  • High-intensity focused ultrasound treatment of liver tumours: post-treatment MRI correlates well with intra-operative estimates of treatment volume

    T Leslie and others

    British Institute of Radiology, 2012

    Volume 85

  • Treatment of Cancer (Sixth Edition)

    P Price and K Sikora

    CRC Press, 2015

  • The information on this page is based on literature searches and specialist checking. We used many references and there are too many to list here. If you need additional references for this information please contact patientinformation@cancer.org.uk with details of the particular issue you are interested in.

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