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FERENC JOLESZ: THE FOUNDER OF MR-GUIDED FOCUSED ULTRASOUND

May 1, 2015
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A year before physician and Harvard Medical School professor, Dr. Ferenc Jolesz, passed away on December 31, 2014, his life’s work completely moved a total stranger.

A 32-year-old songwriter from Boston decided he would donate his kidney to Dr. Jolesz after reading about him in a local newspaper. The article described how Dr. Jolesz had pioneered medical advances that helped save lives and made surgical procedures much less invasive.

Here at INSIGHTEC, we recognize Dr. Jolesz as the person whose flash of insight ignited MR-guided focused ultrasound – the basis of INSIGHTEC’s technology. As our board member Morry Blumenfeld recalls, itwas November 1990 and Blumenfeld was a senior scientist at General Electric. Dr. Jolesz was then an Associate Professor of Radiology at Harvard Medical School.

Blumenfeld was walking along the Mur River in the Austrian city of Graz with Dr. Jolesz and two other scientists. All four men were fascinated by applications of the newly emergent technology called MRI and were brainstorming ways MRI could be used to guide therapies. One of them suggested using lasers to create a hologram of a tumor. This hologram would then be superimposed on the tumor, making it possible to destroy it.

Blumenfeld and his colleagues agreed that the idea could work. The only problem was that a tumor is inside a patient’s body and there is no way to put a hologram inside the body without destroying the coherence of the light necessary to create the hologram.

As they mulled this over, they continued to walk along the river. Suddenly, Dr. Jolesz burst out, “We are stupid; we don’t have to make a hologram, we could scan with a focused ultrasound beam through the tumor.”

The rest, as they say, is history. When they returned to the U.S., Dr. Jolesz and Blumenfeld started to flesh out the idea. General Electric built the first five MRgFUS units shortly afterward and placed them at Harvard, Stanford, the Mayo Clinic and elsewhere. Dr. Jolesz and Blumenfeld decided to ablate fibroadenomas (benign tumors) in the breast. The results were extremely promising. “It was a very primitive system,” recalls Blumenfeld, “but it worked.” Unlike the current systems, which can have over 200 and soon almost 10,000 elements, the one in reference had only a single ultrasound transducer.

Meanwhile, Dr. Jolesz, who was born to Holocaust survivors in Hungary in 1946 and emigrated to the United States in 1979, continued to make strides in the field of image-guided therapies, leading a research staff of over 1,000 at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s hospital.

In his last position, Dr. Jolesz was the Director of the Division of MRI and Director of the Image Guided Therapy Program at BWH, Director of the National Center for Image Guided Therapy, and Professor of Radiology at Harvard Medical School.

In around 1996, General Electric made a strategic decision to sell its therapy delivery technologies. General Electric had bought an Israeli company called Diasonics Vingmed, headed by Kobi Vortman. Diasonics had independently been developing therapeutic ultrasound technology. When he heard about the MRI-guided component, Vortman immediately saw its potential and eventually bought 80 percent of the program from GE. INSIGHTEC was founded by Vortman in 1999. 

“Ferenc was a brilliant person,” Vortman recalls in his tribute to Dr. Jolesz.  “As a surgeon and radiologist he understood very early the potential benefits of imaging to guide minimally invasive and later non-invasive therapies.”

Although Dr. Jolesz was not involved in the transfer of MRgFUS technology from GE to INSIGHTEC, Blumenfeld says that as a doctor, Dr. Jolesz was highly involved in all the research and development and clinical aspects of the technology, pivoting from fibroadenomas of the breast to uterine fibroids, which received FDA approval 14 years after its original conception.  

“The best way to memorialize him,” said Vortman, “is for us to continue to invest in our dedication, hard work and innovative power, and to enable MRgFUS to be a widespread treatment alternative that will help many patients in need.”

As Dr. Jolesz himself told Boston’s WBUR when he received the gift of a kidney, “You cannot express with words, what you feel. It’s a unique situation that you find somebody, a strange person, who helps you to have a second life.”

Dr. Jolesz’ words could have been spoken of himself. His discoveries will continue to help future patients to have a second life.  

May his memory continue to inspire medical innovation.

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