An Inexpensive Microchip and 3D Printing Take Ultrasound Machines from 2D to 3D


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You may have seen a 3D ultrasound before, if you or someone you know are going to have a baby. They’re impressive, but not yet extremely common, because they’re expensive. A normal 2D ultrasound machine costs about $50,000, while a 3D machine is around $250,000. That’s unfortunate, because 3D ultrasounds offer a much better understanding of internal injuries or conditions, similar to the caliber of an MRI or CT scan.

Scientists from Duke and Stanford Universities have come up with a way to give a 2D ultrasound machine the 3D capabilities of their more expensive counterparts – for about $10. The idea came from Joshua Broder, MD, an emergency physician and associate professor of surgery at Duke Health, when he was playing a Nintendo Wii with his son in 2014. A microchip in the Wii controller allows the controller to be perfectly tracked by the console, and Dr. Broder thought it would be great if they could just tape the controller to an ultrasound probe to impart those tracking abilities.

Or, why not attach the same kind of microchip to the probe, which is the handheld scanner that slides over the skin? The microchip would then register the probe’s orientation, like it does with a Wii, and use software to stitch hundreds of individual slices of the anatomy together to create a 3D image.

“With 2-D technology you see a visual slice of an organ, but without any context, you can make mistakes,” Dr. Broder said. “These are problems that can be solved with the added orientation and holistic context of 3-D technology. Gaining that ability at an incredibly low cost by taking existing machines and upgrading them seemed like the best solution to us.”

After experimenting with his idea himself for about a year, Dr. Broder turned to Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering and talked to then-undergraduate student Matt Morgan, as well as biomedical engineering instructors and professors Carl Herickhoff and Jeremy Dahl, who have since moved to Stanford. They used 3D printing to create a prototype of a plastic holster that holds the microchip and snaps onto the ultrasound probe. A technician then has the option of using the probe as usual or attaching the microchip. They also created a plastic stand to help steady the probe for the best possible 3D images. The parts were made in Duke University’s busy 3D printing lab.

The microchip and probe connect via cables to a laptop programmed for the device, and the software creates a 3D model as the technician moves the probe.

Duke and Stanford are both testing the device in clinical trials. They believe that it could be most useful in cases where CT or MRI scans are not available, such as in remote or developing areas, or in cases where those types of scans are too risky.

“With trauma patients in the emergency department, we face a dilemma. Do we take them to the operating room not knowing the extent of their internal injuries or bleeding, or do we risk transporting them to a CT scanner, where their condition could worsen due to a delay in care?” Dr. Broder said. “With our new 3-D technique, we hope to demonstrate that we can determine the source of bleeding, measure the rate of bleeding right at the bedside and determine whether an operation is really needed.”

The new technology could also be useful for newborn babies, who need sedation in order to keep them still for an MRI machine, and for whom CT scans are risky because of the exposure to radiation. In one case, the scientists were able, using the new device, to take 3D images of the brain of a seven-month-old baby with hydrocephalus while the baby napped.

Dr. Joshua Broder

“Ultrasound is such a beautiful technology because it’s inexpensive, it’s portable, and it’s completely safe in every patient. And it’s brought to the bedside and it doesn’t interfere with patient care,” said Dr. Broder.

An international patent lists Dr. Broder, Herickhoff, Dahl and Morgan as the inventors of the device, which they believe they can bring to market within a couple of years. They’re currently working to give their device more of the capabilities of a 3D ultrasound machine, like the ability to capture a beating heart in motion.

“In emergency medicine, we use ultrasound to look at every part of the body — to look at blood vessels that we put catheters into, to checking on a trauma patient to see where they’re bleeding. In this case we can augment 2-D machines and improve every one of those applications,” Dr. Broder said. “Instead of looking through a keyhole to understand what’s in the room, we can open a door and see everything in front of us.”

The inventors, along with Elias J. Jaffa, Brendan P. Smith, and Erica Peethumnongsin of Duke, demonstrated the device on October 31st at the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) Research Forum in Washington, D.C.

3D printing has been used before to enhance fetal ultrasound technology, such as through innovative 3D printed lenses. Ultrasounds have also been turned into 3D printed statues, showing expectant parents their unborn children’s faces, which is especially beneficial to the visually impaired.

Discuss this and other 3D printing topics at or share your thoughts below.

[Source: Duke Health]


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