ActiveFU - breast cancer gets 'down to earth' treatment from space

February 4, 2004

Brussels, 03 Feb 2004

A Dutch entrepreneur, supported by ESINET, the joint EU-European Space Agency (ESA) space incubators network, is developing a non-invasive cancer treatment using technologies developed for satellite simulations and other space applications.

Hugo Brunsveld van Hulten, a mathematician from the Netherlands with interests in remote sensing, has worked with medical magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) techniques since the early nineties. Recently, he recognised that advances in MRI systems from passive diagnostic scanners towards real-time imaging systems would enable new non-invasive surgical techniques. His innovative idea is to combine real-time MRI to locate cancerous tissue and high-intensity focused ultrasound (HIFU) to destroy that same tissue.

HIFU is a proven intervention technique for the ablation of cancer cells in the human body," explains Brunsveld van Hulten. "This technique combined with recent advances in MRI capabilities that can provide a proper real-time view of the area during treatment, will give the operator highly-sophisticated control of the hyper-thermal tumour-targeting procedure." Further, the proposed method would not have the negative side effects associated with chemotherapy and radiation treatment – so it would be a more patient-friendly option.

Space for innovation

To realise his project, Brunsveld van Hulten needed specialist help with the engineering complexities of designing and integrating the system hardware. Help came when his idea was accepted into the European Space Incubator (ESI) facility, part of the EU-ESA ESINET network. Located at ESA's European Space Research and Test Centre in the Netherlands, the ESI facility was opened in 2003 to assist entrepreneurial start-ups in applying space-developed technologies and expertise to non-space applications.

Space technology inputs

A choice was made to concentrate initially on breast cancer – one of the most prevalent forms in woman between 35 and 69. High quality magnetic resonance imaging coils, intended for breast scans and compatible with the latest MRI scanners from Siemens and Philips, were selected. These scanners have higher acquisition rates and improved resolution over earlier machines.

Although most of the hardware is available commercially as components and stand-alone systems, the ESI environment provided the critical inputs on system integration, as Brunsveld van Hulten describes. "ESA's capacity to simulate complex systems has been vital in determining the optimal materials and technologies to use." Software developed to simulate satellite behaviour in real time was employed to solve complex engineering design problems. Further wave propagation modelling was essential to get the MRI and HIFU technologies to work together. Brunsveld van Hulten emphasises, "It was the electronics skills and embedded software from ESA that enabled me to develop a system for real-time simulation and control of the critical thermal treatment process."

Out of the nursery

The new cancer-treatment technique, now named ActiveFU, needs more work before real patients can be cured of real cancers – but work is progressing and first treatments could be available in 2006.

The ESA Concurrent Design Facility was used to fine-tune ActiveFu's technical requirements in December 2003. The facility uses a dynamic design process that highlights and eliminates conflicts between sub-systems. In addition to in-house medical expertise, the ESI organised a workshop with leading medical experts on user requirements and operational constraints – gaining important inputs for the design constraints on an eventual commercial system.

For the ESI, established only a year ago, ActiveFU is a first success. Bruno Naulais, the ESI manager reports. "Our experience with the ActiveFU project has demonstrated that ESI can bridge the gap between having an idea and starting up an actual business. It supports entrepreneurs such as Brunsveld van Hulton to build a viable business plan, conduct feasibility studies on the technology to be used, and to bring the project to a level where venture capital is attracted to co-finance its further development."

More information:


European Space Incubator (ESI)

European Space Agency (ESA)

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