TORONTO -- Sunnybrook Hospital says a landmark $16.7-million grant could revolutionize the treatment of brain disorders including Alzheimer's, brain cancer and ALS.

The funds from the W. Garfield Weston Foundation will go towards speeding up development of a focused ultrasound device that can allow targeted treatments to pass through the blood-brain barrier.

Sunnybrook will test the device on three brain disorders, including Alzheimer's disease, breast cancer that has spread to the brain, and glioblastoma -- the deadliest and most common brain tumour.

The blood-brain barrier is a tightly packed network of vessels meant to protect the brain from toxins. But it can also be a major obstacle in many hard-to-treat conditions because it prevents potentially helpful agents from entering the brain -- such as chemotherapy, antibodies, stem cells or gene therapy.

The hospital already does focused ultrasound treatments but neurosurgeon Dr. Nir Lipsman says this new device could allow doctors to deliver medication directly to the brain tumour, and allow more targeted treatment in multiple areas, with less medication and fewer side effects.

The hospital's foundation is trying to raise $33 million for the Weston Family Focused Ultrasound Initiative, which would create a helmet-like prototype that would be specifically fitted to each patient and wouldn't need an MRI for guidance, which is the current practice.

"These are some of the most complex disorders that have no effective treatments, so we're excited to move closer to testing the device in clinical trials. The impact of this technology on patient care will be felt across Canada and around the world," Lipsman said Monday in a release.

Research like this can offer powerful hope to patients and families grappling with a frightening diagnosis, adds Lidia Vetturetti, whose mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's five years ago.

Vetturetti says the signs were apparent years earlier, but that her mother refused to see a doctor because she saw no value in confirming she faced a debilitating condition with no known cure.

"It would have changed everything. I would have pushed her to go even sooner because I would have said, 'There's trials. As soon as we can, let's try it. It might stop this. It might slow down.' And we might have had longer with her," says Vetturetti.

She's still here, but she's not really. I lost her a long time ago."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on March 2, 2020