Kristopher Sturgis

December 17, 2014

3 Min Read
Could This Ultrasound Chip Disrupt Medical Imaging?

Imagine a world where imaging a person's chest could be as simple as grabbing your smartphone and capturing a vivid 3-D image of what's inside. This is the vision of entrepreneur Jonathan Rothberg, who has raised $100 million to create an innovative medical imaging device that could be "as cheap as a stethoscope."

Rothberg says he raised the money in an effort to provide a cheap alternative medical imaging device, while also making doctors "100 times as effective," he said in a story from MIT Technology Review.

The technology, which relies on a new kind of ultrasound chip according to patent documents, could potentially lead to new ways to destroy cancer cells with heat, or deliver information to brain cells, in addition to its imaging capabilities. The imaging system is being developed by Butterfly Network, a three year old company that is committed to transforming diagnostic and therapeutic imaging. Despite the potential impact of the device, Rothberg remains secretive when discussing the technology.

"The details will come out when we are on stage selling it," he said. "That's in the next 18 months." Rothberg claims there's even a "secret sauce" to the company's device. Rothberg does, however, guarantee that the device will be small, cost only a few hundred dollars, connect to a phone, and be able to do things like diagnose breast cancer or visualize a fetus.

As for Butterfly's patent applications, the device has been described as a compact, versatile ultrasound scanner that can create 3-D images in real time. According to the documents, you can hold the device up to a person's chest, and you could look through "what appears to be a window" into the body.

Despite Rothberg's efforts to transform medical imaging, he certainly isn't the first to take a swing at producing a phone-based ultrasound device. Mobisante introduced a smartphone-based ultrasound imaging system back in 2011, a similar technology that connects wirelessly to a smartphone to produce ultrasound images. Even the technology as a whole is improving, as researchers look to produce ultrasound images that can penetrate bone and circumvent other roadblocks that frequently distort images.

With the $100 million that Rothberg and other major investors have anted up, Butterfly seems to have the largest stake on the emerging technology. The company realizes that anyone who can integrate ultrasound elements directly onto a computer chip, will enable them to manufacture them cheaply and in large supply, allowing them to more easily produce the type of arrays needed to produce 3-D images.

Ultrasound technology is one of the most widely used tools that many doctors use when imaging the body for diagnostic purposes. From viewing a baby during pregnancy, to finding tumors in soft tissue, ultrasound imaging technology has never been more important. Even though the vision for this type of device has been around for several years, we have yet to see someone invest enough time and money into making it a reality.

Rothberg says his first goal is to develop an imaging system that will be cheap enough to use in even the poorest countries around the world. He says the system will depend heavily on software that could be advanced enough to reach preliminary diagnostic conclusions based on pattern finding software.

While there is still plenty of research and development in the making, the possibilities for this transformative new imaging device remain to be both exciting and seemingly endless. Until Rothberg discloses more details, the specifics of the device will continue to be a hot topic as rumors swirl.

Refresh your medical device industry knowledge at MD&M West, in Anaheim, CA, February 10-12, 2015.

Kristopher Sturgis is a contributor to Qmed and MPMN.

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About the Author(s)

Kristopher Sturgis

Kristopher Sturgis is a freelance contributor to MD+DI.

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