image: MIT engineers designed an adhesive patch that produces ultrasound images of the body. The stamp-sized device sticks to skin and can provide continuous ultrasound imaging of internal organs for 48 hours.
Credit: Image: Felice Frankel
Ultrasound imaging is a safe and noninvasive window into the body’s workings, providing clinicians with live images of a patient’s internal organs. To capture these images, trained technicians manipulate ultrasound wands and probes to direct sound waves into the body. These waves reflect back out to produce high-resolution images of a patient’s heart, lungs, and other deep organs.
Currently, ultrasound imaging requires bulky and specialized equipment available only in hospitals and doctor’s offices. But a new design by MIT engineers might make the technology as wearable and accessible as buying Band-Aids at the pharmacy.
In a paper appearing today in Science, the engineers present the design for a new ultrasound sticker — a stamp-sized device that sticks to skin and can provide continuous ultrasound imaging of internal organs for 48 hours.
The researchers applied the stickers to volunteers and showed the devices produced live, high-resolution images of major blood vessels and deeper organs such as the heart, lungs, and stomach. The stickers maintained a strong adhesion and captured changes in underlying organs as volunteers performed various activities, including sitting, standing, jogging, and biking.
The current design requires connecting the stickers to instruments that translate the reflected sound waves into images. The researchers point out that even in their current form, the stickers could have immediate applications: For instance, the devices could be applied to patients in the hospital, similar to heart-monitoring EKG stickers, and could 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 — the ultrasound stickers could be made into wearable imaging products that patients could take home from a doctor’s office or even buy at a pharmacy.
“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,” says the study’s senior author, Xuanhe Zhao, professor of mechanical engineering and civil and environmental engineering at MIT. “We believe we’ve opened a new era of wearable imaging: With a few patches on your body, you could see your internal organs.”
The study also includes lead authors Chonghe Wang and Xiaoyu Chen, and co-authors Liu Wang, Mitsutoshi Makihata, and Tao Zhao at MIT, along with Hsiao-Chuan Liu of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
A sticky issue
To image with ultrasound, a technician first applies a liquid gel to a patient’s skin, which acts to transmit ultrasound waves. A probe, or transducer, is then pressed against the gel, sending sound waves into the body that echo off internal structures and back to the probe, where the echoed signals are translated into visual images.
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 have explored designs for stretchable ultrasound probes that would provide portable, …….