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.

HIFU is a cancer treatment that uses high-frequency sound waves. You have HIFU from a machine. The machine gives off the sound waves which deliver a strong beam to a specific part of a cancer. This heats and destroys the cancer cells. 

Who can have HIFU?

Researchers are looking at HIFU as a treatment for different cancers. Most of the research so far has been for prostate cancer. But you might also have it as part of a clinical trial for:

  • rectal cancer
  • cervical cancer
  • vaginal cancer
  • womb cancer
  • soft tissue sarcoma

Researchers around the world have also looked at HIFU as a treatment for other cancers including kidney and liver cancer. 

HIFU can treat a single tumour or part of a large tumour. But it is not suitable for people with cancer that has spread to more than one place in their body.

You might have HIFU if you cannot have some treatments for your cancer or if your cancer has come back in one place. You might also have HIFU together with another treatment for your cancer.

Prostate cancer

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. You have it under a general anaesthetic or spinal anaesthetic. From that position, the ultrasound can direct beams more accurately at the prostate. 

Research has shown that HIFU for prostate cancer is safe. But we still need more research about whether it is as good as other treatments in the longer term.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has issued guidelines for the treatment of prostate cancer. These guidelines say that men should have HIFU for prostate cancer as part of a clinical trial or in a specialist centre. 

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 salvage treatment.  

Your doctors should make sure that you know:

  • what is involved in having the treatment
  • 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 everyone who has 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.

Side effects

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 around the back passage, but this is mild and doesn't last long. It's unusual for the soreness to be ongoing or severe.

A few people have problems passing urine. This might include leakage of urine or the need to pass urine more often and suddenly. 

And most men are able to have erections after this treatment but a few may have problems. 

Research into HIFU

Most of the research so far has looked at HIFU as a treatment for prostate cancer. There is also some early research looking at it for other cancers.

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

Researchers have looked at 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.

This page is due for review. We will update this as soon as possible.

Last reviewed: 
13 Aug 2018
  • Cancer Research UK Clinical Trials Database

  • Oncologic and functional outcome of partial gland ablation with HIFU for localized prostate cancer

    R Bass and others 

    Journal of Urology 2018 S0022-5347(18)43550-1

  • Comparative Analysis of Partial Gland Ablation and Radical Prostatectomy to Treat Low and Intermediate Risk Prostate Cancer: Oncologic and Functional Outcomes

    S Garcia Barreras and others 

    Journal of Urology 2018 Volume 199 number 1 pages 140-146

  • Clinical Application of High-intensity Focused Ultrasound in Cancer Therapy

    Y Hsiao and others 

    Journal of Cancer 2016 Volume 7 number 3 pages 225-31

  • A meta-analysis of palliative treatment of pancreatic cancer with high intensity focused ultrasound

    S Dababou and others

    Journal of Therapeutic Ultrasound 2017 Volume 1 pages 5-9

  • High-intensity focused ultrasound (HIFU) for pancreatic carcinoma: evaluation of feasibility, reduction of tumour volume and pain intensity

    M Marinova and others 

    European Radiology 2016 Volume 26 number 11 pages 4047-4056

  • 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.

Related links