Moms-to-be could soon be watching babies grow in the womb on a smartphone.
Postage stamp-sized adhesive patches have been developed that provide imaging of the heart, lungs, and other organs.
They will be connected to your smartphone device – producing clear and continuous pictures for 48 hours.
While women could see their own fetuses, it would also improve the monitoring of cancer patients’ tumors. They have many potential uses to accelerate disease treatment and diagnosis.
“We envision a few patches adhered to different locations on the body, and the patches would communicate with your cellphone, where AI algorithms would analyze the images on demand,” said the study’s senior author, Professor Xuanhe Zhao, a mechanical engineer at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“We believe we have opened a new era of wearable imaging. With a few patches on your body, you could see your internal organs.”
The team at the Boston-based institution ran a battery of tests with healthy volunteers, who wore the stickers on various parts of their bodies, including the neck, chest, abdomen, and arms. They remained attached to the skin for two days and took photos of their underlying structures.
Participants were able to do a wide range of activities, including sitting, standing, jogging and biking, as well as lifting weights.
The images showed the diameters of blood vessels as they changed from standing to sitting. They also took images of deep organs such as the shape and function of the heart during exercise.
Researchers were also able watch how the stomach shrinks and then expands as they drink juice.
And as some lifted weights, Zhao and colleagues could detect bright patterns in underlying muscles, signaling temporary microdamage.
Lead author Xiaoyu Chen said: “With imaging, we might be able to capture the moment in a workout before overuse, and stop before muscles become sore.
“We do not know when that moment might be yet, but now we can provide imaging data that experts can interpret.”
Ultrasound is a safe and non-invasive window into the body’s workings, providing clinicians with live images of a patient’s organs.
Trained technicians manipulate wands and probes to direct sound waves into the body. High-resolution images are produced by the reflections.
Currently, the technique requires bulky and specialized equipment available only in hospitals and doctor’s offices.
The new design will revolutionize medicine and make the process as accessible and wearable as purchasing Band-Aids from the pharmacy.
Currently, it requires connecting the stickers to instruments that translate the reflected sound waves into images.
Even in this form, they have potential immediate applications for hospital patients – similar to heart-monitoring electro-cardio gram stickers.
They could also continuously image internal organs without requiring a technician to hold a probe in place for long periods of time.
If the devices can be made to operate wirelessly – a goal the team is currently working toward – they could be made into wearable imaging products that patients could take home from a doctor’s office or even buy at the chemist’s. To image using ultrasound, the technician applies liquid gel to the skin of the patient. This acts as a transmitter for ultrasound waves. A probe or transducer is placed against the gel. The sound waves are transmitted into the patient’s body and echo back to it.
For patients who require long periods of imaging, some hospitals offer probes affixed to robotic arms that can hold a transducer in place without tiring, but the liquid ultrasound gel flows away and dries out over time, interrupting long-term imaging.
In recent years researchers explored the possibility of portable ultrasound probes with low profile imaging of internal organs.
These designs gave a flexible array of tiny ultrasound transducers, the idea being that such a device would stretch and conform to a patient’s body.
But these experimental designs have produced low-resolution images, in part due to their stretch.
In moving with the body, transducers shift location relative to each other, distorting the resulting image.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology grad and co-author Chonghe Wang said: “Wearable ultrasound imaging tool would have huge potential in the future of clinical diagnosis.
“However, the resolution and imaging duration of existing ultrasound patches is relatively low, and they cannot image deep organs.”
The ultrasound sticker produces higher-resolution images over a longer duration by pairing a stretchy adhesive layer with a rigid array of transducers.
Wang said: “This combination enables the device to conform to the skin while maintaining the relative location of transducers to generate clearer and more precise images.”
The adhesive surface is made from two thin layers of elastomer that encapsulate a middle layer of solid hydrogel, a mostly water-based material that easily transmits sound waves. It is flexible and elastic, unlike traditional ultrasound gels.
Chen said: “The elastomer prevents dehydration of hydrogel. Only when the hydrogel is highly hydrated can acoustic waves penetrate effectively and give high-resolution imaging of internal organs.”
The bottom elastomer layer is designed to stick to the skin, while the top layer adheres to a rigid array of transducers that the team also designed and fabricated.
The team also develops software algorithms that use artificial intelligence to better understand and diagnose stickers’ images.
Zhao said ultrasound stickers could be packaged and purchased by patients and consumers. They could be used to not only monitor internal organs, but also track the progress of cancerous cells and the development of foetuses within the womb.
Zhao added: “We imagine we could have a box of stickers, each designed to image a different location of the body. We believe this represents a breakthrough in wearable devices and medical imaging.”
The team’s findings were published Thursday in Science.
Produced in association with SWNS.
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