Ultrasound works like bat’s ears to make real-time 3-D images

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June 13, 2003 — MEMS exploded the old way of triggering automobile air bags, rewrote the hard drive business and may now be about to change the picture for the $3.3 billion medical imaging industry.

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Sensant Corp.‘s Silicon Ultrasound Technology uses a MEMS technique similar to the way a bat’s ears work to make real-time 3-D images of the carotid artery, breast cancer lesions and the musculoskeletal system. Sensant presented the first clinical images taken with its technology at a recent conference on ultrasound sponsored by the American Institute of Ultrasound Medicine.

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In essence, all imaging technology works via microfabricated ultrasound transducers, or MUTs — devices that take electricity and use it to send radio waves that generate images. Bats “see” via ultrasound. What Sensant does is make 2-D images better and make 3-D  images more cost-effective. It uses tiny percussive hammers built onto silicon chips to pound out air wave signals that then create more effective images.

Igal Ladabaum, Sensant founder and president, said that these first clinical images mark the beginning of what Sensant will be able to do for medical imaging technology.

Since starting the company, “there’s been speculation about whether the technology is for real, can it do what we say it will, etc., the usual stuff you get with disruptive technology,” Laudabaum said. The MEMS-driven images were on par with images taken using traditional piezoelectrical systems, the current mainstay of ultrasound. Sensant’s real promise is the ability to mass-produce its devices. Piezoelectrical crystals require handcrafting, which contributes to the multimillion-dollar cost of the machines.

One ultrasound expert who attended the conference said that while not all of Sensant’s images were as good as existing technology, he was “very excited” by Sensant’s presentation.

“If you have a real 3-D object moving on the screen, that would certainly be a help to a physician trying to make a diagnosis,” said K. Kirk Shung, professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Southern California. Shung said that current 3-D ultrasound machines are “pseudo real-time,” meaning physicians must work harder to “see” the 3-D image.

Adding the fourth dimension of time should prove valuable, Shung said. He noted that while there are at least two other groups working on MEMS in ultrasound, Sensant appears to have the lead.

The real-time aspect of Sensant’s technology also intrigued Jim Clayton, medical imaging analyst at Frost & Sullivan in San Antonio, Texas. “There isn’t any other product under development in the 4-D world which will give you instantaneous viewing,” he said. Clayton said that there’s one comparable 3-D ultrasound product on the market, from Philips, which isn’t a real-time device.

Sales of 3-D ultrasound in the United States in 2002 were $148.5 million and are expected to grow to $527.5 million in 2009, about 19 percent a year. Clayton said it’s possible that a technology like Sensant’s might drive faster growth.

Laudabaum said that Sensant’s technology will not only improve images, but also should reduce training time. It takes two years of training to become a sonographer, and a minimum of two years working with machines to become good at reading the images. “Ultrasound looks like floating clouds to just about anyone who hasn’t looked at a lot of ultrasound,” Ladabaum said.

Perhaps more important to the market is the price of the machines. Laudabuam said Sensant’s system will cost one-tenth the normal $1 million to $2 million dollars it costs for today’s imaging systems.

“That’s the logic behind MEMS,” said Thomas Nelson, professor of radiology at the University of California, San Diego. Nelson said the ability to use silicon manufacturing processes to generate economies of scale holds enormous appeal for the ultrasound business. “That would really be an enabling technology,” he said. But he also cautioned that gaining market acceptance would not be easy.

Before it can generate any commercial interest, Sensant still has to resolve its product strategy. While its technology currently has industrial applications, for the medical field it has to build prototype machines to prove its concepts. The images it showed were generated by a device put together by Esaote SpA, an Italian maker of imaging equipment. Sensant is negotiating with potential partners on strategic development agreements or joint ventures. If those avenues fail to develop, Laudabaum said, the company will look to raise more capital so it can start production on its own. 

Laudabaum said that Sensant has had to dedicate much of its effort to figuring out how to package its MEMS technology.  It now can work with any silicon method on the market, which will help its partnership discussions.

In the meantime, it’s also working on a version of its technology that can withstand battlefield conditions using funding from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.


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