The sound of cancer

“Conventional ultrasound is actually not terribly effective for finding cancer in soft tissue,” says Dr. William Whelan. “We’re working with a promising new tool that uses light to create sound in tissue, and what we’re finding is that cancer makes its own unique sound, making it much easier to target for treatment.”

Dr. Whelan is a Professor of Physics, and UPEI’s Canada Research Chair in Biomedical Optics. 

“Conventional ultrasound sends in a known frequency of sound, and uses the reflections to form an image,” explains Dr. Whelan. “Photoacoustics sends in light, which is absorbed by the tissue and produces sound waves. Think of it as light-activated ultrasound.” Dr. Whelan’s lab has been experimenting with this technique, and has made some startling discoveries by analyzing the sound waves generated by prostate cancer.

“Cancerous prostate tissues emit different sound frequencies than non-cancerous prostate tissue,” says Dr. Whelan. “Frequency is a measure of pitch, how high or low a sound is, so you could say that cancer generates a different note.”

Conventional ultrasound has about a 60% success rate in locating prostate cancer.

Dr. Whelan says there is evidence that image contrast with photoacoustics could be two or even three times better. “I don’t want to get people excited that we have this amazing new diagnostic tool,” says Dr. Whelan. “Where I think this shows great promise is as a targeting tool for treatment. If we can define the boundaries of a cancer, we can do a much better job at treating just the affected tissue, and leaving the healthy tissue alone.