Sonablate Corp. is a global leader in high-intensity focused ultrasound (HIFU) treatment of the prostate, with more than 40,000 patients treated worldwide. The company’s device – Sonablate HIFU – is approved in more than 50 countries and has been in use in the United Kingdom (UK) for nearly 19 years. Currently there are more than 15 sites, both public National Health Service (NHS) hospitals as well as private hospitals that have access to a Sonablate device. We spoke with the company’s Chief Commercialization Officer, Alex Gonzalez, about the company, its business in the UK, and how their technology is changing lives.
Where is the company headquartered? Any additional locations?
Our UK arm is UK HIFU Limited, which is based in Bristol, England. We also have a repair and training center there. You can learn more at https://www.sonablate.com/.
How was the company started?
As we expanded our presence from the US into the UK, we partnered with Professor Mark Emberton at University College London hospitals. That was really our first site using HIFU for prostate. As his department began devoting more time to HIFU research, we established a presence in the UK that served dual needs: We offered support for the work that was being done at University College London hospitals and established a mobile service that brought the equipment on an as-needed basis to hospitals that were not able to purchase it.
How did you get involved in starting or joining the company?
My role as chief commercialization officer started nearly 18 years ago, when I was one of the first two employees hired by US HIFU (the predecessor company to Sonablate).
What are the day-to-day operations of the UK headquarters?
UK HIFU serves as a hub for customers in the UK, and essentially all of Europe. In some countries, UK HIFU has agreements in place with distribution partners; but in others, our team services customers directly. We are a training center for the service personnel affiliated with these distribution partners. For those that we service directly, we assist with sales, training physicians and nursing personnel, and maintenance of the systems.
Can you describe the training process?
Training is split up into four phases:
- After a customer acquires one of our systems, the first training phase is a series of self-paced online modules, both for the physician and the support personnel, that include setting up, taking down, and cleaning the equipment. Each discipline has its own subset of modules, and the modules take several hours to complete. The basic modules cover ultrasonography as it relates to HIFU, proper patient selection, pre- and postoperative patient management, and treatment techniques.
- After the online component is complete, we schedule a one-on-one simulator session with the physicians and put into practice what they learned in the basic modules. We present a prostate from our library, and the physician and an experienced application specialist will then perform a mock HIFU case.
- The third phase is when we are on site, sitting next to the physician, and we will do at least six or more cases with them over several days.
- Finally, we offer a telemedicine link where the physician can see us, and we can see the treatment screen in real time. This is like training wheels after they have completed the initial three phases. We also offer telemedicine services if a physician has not done a case in a couple of weeks — or if it is a highly technical case.
Currently there are more than 15 sites, both in public National Health Service (NHS) hospitals as well as private hospitals, that have access to a Sonablate device. By the fall of this year, we plan to increase that number to 20 sites.
Who are the key advocates driving adoption in the UK?
There has been a significant push from the All-Party Parliamentary Group, which was formed to examine access to noninvasive treatments and patient demand. The group released a report last summer that indicated only 10 percent of cancer patients in the UK are offered noninvasive treatments.
So there has been a political push, but there has also been a significant push from patient advocacy groups. Paul Sayer, a former patient of Professor Hashim Ahmed, was so pleased with his treatment and response that he started a charity, Prost8 UK, to advocate for patients.
Why is the UK market important to Sonablate?
There is no more significant tip of the spear than the UK for HIFU in the prostate space. The pioneering physicians who, for the past 18 years, have really believed in this concept and have proven that it works are the reason for Sonablate’s success in the region, and they are responsible for improving the lives of thousands of patients.