Sunday, May 24, 2009

WU engineers develop ultrasound cell phone

William D. Richard (left) takes an ultrasound probe of colleague David Zar's carotid artery with a low-power imaging device he designed.
(David Kilper/WUSTL Photo)
By Liz Stoever

Everyone knows cell phones can pinpoint your location by GPS signals, record photos and video, browse the Internet and keep your schedule. They even can make phone calls.

But now, thanks to engineers at Washington University, cell phones can scan your insides.

Computer engineers David Zar and David Richard have invented a combination ultrasound and high-end smart phone — a super-portable device to scan the body using sound waves.

The new device, adapted from existing portable ultrasounds, will provide a cheaper and more portable alternative to ultrasounds typically limited to hospitals.

In a world where 70 percent of the population does not have access to medical imaging, Zar said, he and his partner expect the device to permanently change the current medical and global computer landscape.

"Twenty-first century medicine is defined by medical imaging," Zar said. "But it's typically not used."
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Although ultrasounds are very practical, they can be difficult to use because the machines are large, old and shared, Zar said. With the cell phone ultrasound, doctors can use it more often.

"This fits in a coat pocket and the whole thing can start up in 10 to 15 seconds," Zar said.

The device also allows patients with diseases such as Duchenne muscular dystrophy to do ultrasounds at home and send information to any centralized unit in the world for a diagnosis.

The device's mobility will also be helpful in developing countries where hospitals are far, but cell phone towers may be more abundant.

Everyone, not just medical professionals, can purchase the ultrasound device from California-based Interson Corp., the manufacturer, in about a month. While ultrasounds are relatively safe, Zar said frequent use can be problematic, and he does not recommend it to pregnant mothers.

Zar and Richard received a $100,000 grant from the Microsoft Corp. in 2008 as part of its larger project to make health care mobile in remote areas. Microsoft External Research has funded approximately $2 million dollars toward projects using cell phones for health care.

About 15 other projects are already under way under the grant program and have produced results including a device that also attaches to a cell phone and can help children with autism communicate more effectively through picture-based communication. Another cell phone compatible device monitors heart rhythms and can diagnose heart problems.

Kristin Tolle, senior research program manager at Microsoft External Research, said the mobile health care project is more prominent than others because it can work anywhere in the world.

"We wanted to encourage ideas," she said. "We are really trying to help underserved communities."

Dr. Antonella Quattromani, a cardiologist on staff with DePaul Health Center, who went on a mission to Ecuador in March, said the device would be very practical on her other mission trips to remote areas.

"The quality of the image is good," she said. "It would be really useful."

The only limitation is the cell phone reception needed to send images in some remote areas, Quattromani said.

By next year, however, everyone in the world should have access to a cell phone tower, Tolle said.

Before the device becomes available to developing countries, Zar said they will need help developing training and distribution for the device.

"This is much bigger than two geeks at Washington University can support," Richard said. "We need layers of people between us and the people on the ground in India."

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