Low-cost device could bring ultrasound to developing world

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British researchers have developed a portable ultrasound scanner that can be manufactured for around $65, which could bring affordable imaging to women and babies in the developing world.

The hand-held device, roughly the size of a computer mouse, can be plugged into a USB for imaging at power up to 100 times lower than conventional hospital ultrasounds, according to an announcement from Newcastle University. Hospital scanners typically cost anywhere from $32,000 to $160,000. To keep the cost at a minimum, the new device relies on a single fixed-focus transducer.

Jeff Neasham, a sonar expert based in the University's School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering who helped to build the scanner, said the project grew out his own experience with becoming a father. His wife suggested he could apply his expertise at mapping the sea floor to prenatal imaging.

"Here in the U.K. we take these routine, but potentially lifesaving, tests for granted," Neasham according to the announcement. "Imaging to obtain even the simplest information such as the child's position in the womb, or how it is developing, is simply not available to women in many parts of the world.

"We hope the very low cost of this device and the fact that it can run on any standard computer made in the last 10 years means basic antenatal imaging could finally be made available to all women."

More than 250,000 women die each year from complications during pregnancy or childbirth, 99 percent of them in developing countries, according to statistics from the United Nations. That's led companies such as GE and Siemens to focus on building hand-held scanners, Reuters reports

The question remains, however, whether people in poor countries will have access to a computer. Seattle-based Mobisante has attempted to solve that problem by linking the imaging device to a smartphone.

The researchers see potential for the technology beyond obstetrics--even for veterinarians and farmers.

iPhones with a handheld ultrasound attachment that stream images over a Skype connection previously have been found effective in detecting apnea and pneumothorax. What's more, an augmented reality unit developed for use in space, offers 3-D guidance for diagnosing problems or performing do-it-yourself operations using a head-mounted display. It focuses on exams using ultrasound, which its creators called "a versatile and effective medical diagnostic tool ... already available on the International Space Station."

Meanwhile, photoacoustic tomography holds promise for producing better images from deep within the body than X-rays by converting light absorbed at depth into sound waves, which scatter less.

To learn more:
- read the announcement
- here's the Reuters story

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