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Researchers develop ultrasound stickers that can see inside the body

The ultrasound sticker (Felice Frankel/MIT)
The ultrasound sticker (Felice Frankel/MIT)

Researchers have created a stamp-sized ultrasound sticker that can provide images of internal organs continuously for 48 hours.

Currently, ultrasounds require bulky and specialised equipment only available in hospitals and doctors’ offices.

But a new design by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) engineers might make the technology as wearable and accessible as buying plasters at the pharmacy.

The patch was tested in people doing activities such as jogging and drinking fluids.

Ultrasounds allow doctors to see live images of a patient’s internal organs, and wands and probes are used 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.

MIT graduate student Chonghe Wang said: “Wearable ultrasound imaging tools 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.”

In the study 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 stuck well and captured changes in organs as people performed various activities, including sitting, standing, jogging and cycling.

The current design requires connecting the stickers to instruments that translate the reflected sound waves into images.

But researchers say they could have an immediate impact, even in this form.

For example, they 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.

The team is also working towards making the devices wireless, which could allow patients to take them home from a doctor’s office or even buy them at a pharmacy.

The engineers suggest the devices might help people capture the moment in a workout before overuse, and stop before muscles become sore.

While it is not yet known when that moment might be, the images from the sticker might be able to provide imaging data that experts can interpret.

Senior author Xuanhe Zhao, professor of mechanical engineering and civil and environmental engineering at MIT, said: “We envision a few patches adhered to different locations on the body, and the patches would communicate with your cell phone, where AI algorithms would analyse the images on demand.

“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 findings are published in the Science journal.