How a $10 microchip can turn ultrasounds into high-powered 3D image machines

The cost-effective way to boost capabilities can save providers thousands.
By Jeff Lagasse
11:28 AM
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3D ultrasound

The small square housing the microchip turns device into high-powered 3D machine. Photo via Youtube

Technology that keeps track of how a smartphone is oriented can now give $50,000 ultrasound machines many of the 3D imaging abilities of their $250,000 counterparts -- for the cost of a $10 microchip.

Doctors and engineers from Duke and Stanford universities demonstrated their device on Halloween at the American College of Emergency Physicians Research Forum in Washington, D.C., according to Duke Health. The key to the technology is a fingernail-sized microchip that mounts onto a traditional ultrasound probe, the plastic scanner that slides over gel-slathered skin to relay two-dimensional images of what lies beneath.

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Just like a Nintendo Wii video game controller, the chip registers the probe's orientation, then uses software to seamlessly stitch hundreds of individual slices of the anatomy together in three dimensions.

The result is an instant 3D model similar in quality to a CT scan or MRI, only at a much cheaper cost.

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The technology was developed by Joshua Broder, MD, an emergency physician and associate professor of surgery at Duke Health, who first conceived the idea while playing Wii games with his son. With the game console's ability to accurately track the exact position of the controller, he wondered, why not just duct-tape the controller to an ultrasound probe?

After tinkering on his own for about a year, he took sketches to Duke's Pratt School of Engineering, connecting with then-undergraduate Matt Morgan and biomedical engineering instructors and professors Carl Herickhoff and Jeremy Dahl, who have since taken positions at Stanford, where they continue to develop the device.

The team has used Duke's own 3D printing labs to create the prototypes, which start with a streamlined plastic holster that slips onto the ultrasound probe. A technician can use the probe as usual or add 3D images by simply snapping on a plastic attachment containing the location-sensing microchip. To get the best 3D images, the team also devised a plastic stand to help steady the probe as the user hones in on one part of the anatomy.

The microchip and the ultrasound probe connect via computer cables to a laptop programmed for the device. As the user scans, the computer program whips up a 3D model in a few seconds.

Both Duke and Stanford are testing the technology in clinical trials to determine how it fits in the flow of patient care. The creators believe some of the most promising uses could be when CT scans or MRIs are not available, in rural or developing areas, or when they are too risky.

The team is also working to bridge some of the gaps between their adapted 3D ultrasound and 3D machines already on the market, such as the ability to capture a beating heart in motion.

Twitter: @JELagasse
Email the writer: jeff.lagasse@himssmedia.com