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Ultrasound Gets More Portable

A new handheld ultrasound device could be the first that can connect directly to cell-phone and Wi-Fi networks.
November 29, 2010

Two years ago, computer engineers at Washington University in St. Louis created a prototype that took ultrasound imaging to a new level of mobility and connectivity—they connected an ultrasound probe to a smart phone. Now a startup awaiting clearance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration hopes to begin selling the device next year.

Phone, meet probe: An image of a fetus at 23 weeks is displayed on Mobisante’s phone-based ultrasound device. The probe connects to the device through a USB port.

Such a device would be useful for emergency responders, who could scan an injured person to detect internal bleeding or other trauma, and then immediately send an image to the hospital so physicians could be better prepared for the patient’s arrival. Or a nurse practitioner visiting a pregnant woman’s home could ask a specialist stationed elsewhere to weigh in on anomalies in the scan.

The company, Mobisante, was cofounded by David Zar (one of the prototype’s developers) and Sailesh Chutani, formerly the head of external research at Microsoft. While at Microsoft, Chutani’s group provided a mobile-health technology grant to Zar and his colleague, allowing them to design their smart-phone ultrasound prototype.

That Microsoft backing does not extend to Mobisante, though. The startup, which is based in Redmond, Washington, is in talks with venture capital investors, but so far it’s been 40 percent self-funded and 60 percent funded by potential customers, such as community clinics, says Chutani, who declined to reveal the amount raised. (Many community clinics don’t have the budget for a standard ultrasound machine, which can cost well above $50,000.)

Mobisante hasn’t finalized the price for its device yet, but Chutani plans to sell several versions of it, with probes at different frequencies for different medical applications. Depending on the components included, the price could range from $5,000 to $10,000 initially and drop in half within the next three years, Mobisante says.

For the past two months, the company has provided the device to beta users at nine U.S. locations. Oliver Aalami, a vascular surgeon at Valley Medical Center in Renton, Washington, is one of those testers. He’s using Mobisante’s device to guide the placement of central lines, which are large-bore catheters used in veins. He carries it in his lab coat pocket or his briefcase, which is much more convenient than his medical center’s ultrasound machine, housed on a cart in the operating room. “To use that machine, I have to wheel it out of the OR, and then take the elevator up four floors to the ICU,” he says.

With Mobisante’s device, he can head right to a patient’s room for an ultrasound, and he doesn’t have to rearrange the furniture to reach the bedside. “When you’re in a tight room, you can’t always get an ultrasound machine in without taking chairs out and moving the bed,” he says. His beta device isn’t connected to a network, so Aalami hasn’t tested that capability yet. But he says the ultra-portable design is appealing in itself: “It saves me time and lets me worry about other things. I can focus on the rest of my practice.”

Mobisante’s device uses the Toshiba TG01 smart phone and an ultrasound probe manufactured by Interson. The probe is a tweaked version of Interson’s ultrasound probe that connects to a laptop USB port. Zar and a Washington University colleague designed the probe several years ago and licensed it to the company. Together, the phone and probe weigh about 13 ounces.

The new device would not be the only handheld ultrasound device in the marketplace. Several others have already received FDA clearance, including GE’s Vscan and Siemens Acuson P10. Some of the existing devices display color-coded images, which can show blood flow; Mobisante’s device shows black-and-white images. There’s also the question of how Mobisante’s pricing will stack up to competitors—GE says its Vscan device costs $7,900.

What makes Mobisante’s device interesting is that it can connect directly to a cellular network or Wi-Fi, allowing the user to send images with the push of a button. Handheld ultrasound devices currently on the market can’t e-mail images directly— a user has to transfer them to a PC first, either with a docking station or by removing the device’s memory card.

Built-in connectivity isn’t the only advantage of a smart-phone-based system, says Chutani. While other makers of handheld ultrasound devices are wedded to custom hardware, Mobisante expects to reduce its costs as smart-phone technology continues to improve. “Billions of dollars are being spent to make this platform more powerful, so it makes sense to ride that investment rather than try to duplicate it,” Chutani says.

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