The therapy closely targets tumours, causing much less damage to healthy tissue than conventional surgery or radiotherapy.
High-intensity focused ultrasound (HIFU) is already used in some NHS hospitals and private clinics, often to treat the entire half of the prostate where the cancer was situated.
Zapped: A new therapy for prostate cancer claims to target tumours more closely, resulting in less damage to healthy tissue and reducing the chance of side effects
But it is now being used in a more targeted way to treat areas of early-stage cancer just a few millimetres in size.
Experimental research shows this dramatically cuts the number of men suffering incontinence, impotence and other complications due to nerve damage caused by treatment.
Men undergoing traditional treatment – radiotherapy or surgery to remove the whole prostate – have a 50 per cent chance of a ‘perfect outcome’, avoiding the side effects and achieving good cancer control a year after therapy.
In a new trial, men treated with HIFU had a nine in ten chance of achieving the best result. None of the 41 men in the trial had incontinence and just one in ten suffered from impotence after 12 months.
Altogether 95 per cent of the men were cancer-free after a year, a report in the medical journal Lancet Oncology says. HIFU focuses high-frequency sound waves on to an area the size of a grain of rice.
The sound waves cause the tissue to vibrate and heat to about 80c, killing the cells in the target area.
The procedure is performed in hospital under general anaesthetic and most patients are back home within 24 hours.
Dr Hashim Ahmed, who led the study at University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and University College London, said: ‘We’re optimistic that men diagnosed with prostate cancer may soon be able to undergo a day case surgical procedure, which can be safely repeated once or twice, to treat their condition with very few side-effects.
That could mean a significant improvement in their quality of life.
‘This study provides the proof-of-concept we need to develop a much larger trial in the NHS in the next two years, hopefully backed by the Government, to determine whether it is as effective as standard treatment in the medium and long term.’
University College London Hospital, where the study took place
Prostate cancer is the most common cancer in men. In the UK, more than 37,000 men are diagnosed each year and the condition leads to approximately 10,000 deaths.
However, men with early-stage prostate cancer can live for years without their disease getting worse and many face the dilemma of opting for therapy that may lead to side effects.
Standard treatments can damage surrounding healthy tissue, with up to a quarter of men suffering urinary incontinence and two-thirds having erectile difficulties as a result.
But the latest trial, funded by the Medical Research Council, the Pelican Cancer Foundation and St Peter’s Trust, used focal HIFU therapy, meaning it targeted the exact areas of cancer using two highly sensitive diagnostic techniques, MRI and mapping biopsies.
Professor Mark Emberton, who leads the research programme at UCLH and UCL, said similar techniques to preserve tissue had been successful in breast cancer treatment, where women have been offered a lumpectomy rather than mastectomy.
Owen Sharp, of The Prostate Cancer Charity, said: ‘We welcome the development of any prostate cancer treatment which limits the possibility of damaging side effects such as incontinence and impotence.
‘However, we need to remember that this treatment was given to fewer than 50 men, without follow-up over a sustained period of time.’
Prostate Action chief executive Emma Malcolm said: ‘Today, men being treated for prostate cancer face a daunting range of side effects, having a 50/50 chance of getting through a year without experiencing incontinence, impotence, or having their cancer spread.
‘[This] research suggests high-intensity focused ultrasound could cut this risk ... giving thousands of men a better quality of life.’