Tiny 'flashlight' sees inside heart and blood vessels

A tiny doughnut-shaped chip that attaches to the end of a catheter could improve the way doctors peek inside our circulatory systems.

Heart chip from Georgia Tech
It may be small, but it can send back mighty images of the insides of our circulatory system. Rob Felt/Georgia Tech

When looking to examine the heart and blood vessels, the images scientists get from techniques like cross-sectional ultrasounds can provide limited information.

"If you're a doctor, you want to see what is going on inside the arteries and inside the heart, but most of the devices being used for this today provide only cross-sectional images," explained F. Levent Degertekin, a professor in the George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering at Georgia Tech. "If you have an artery that is totally blocked, for example, you need a system that tells you what's in front of you. You need to see the front, back, and sidewalls altogether."

Such a system may now be on the horizon, thanks to Degertekin and a team of researchers at Georgia Tech. They've developed a minuscule sensor that could travel through the bloodstream to send highly detailed 3D images back to an external sensor.

"Our device will allow doctors to see the whole volume that is in front of them within a blood vessel," Degertekin said in a statement. "This will give cardiologists the equivalent of a flashlight so they can see blockages ahead of them in occluded arteries. It has the potential for reducing the amount of surgery that must be done to clear these vessels."

Degertekin and team just published their findings in the journal IEEE Transactions on Ultrasonics, Ferroelectrics and Frequency Control.

The tiny chip is shaped like a doughnut measuring 1.5 millimeters (less than a tenth of an inch) across, with the hole set up to take a wire that would guide it through cardiac catheterization procedures. In that tiny space, the researchers were able to cram 56 ultrasound transmitting elements and 48 receiving elements. So that the mini monitor doesn't boil patients' blood by generating too much heat, it's designed to shut its sensors down when they're not in use.

Next up are the usual animal studies and clinical trials, which Degertekin hopes will be conducted by licensing the technology to a medical diagnostic firm. The researchers are also going to see if they can make their device even smaller -- small enough to fit on a 400-micron-diameter guide wire, which is roughly four times the diameter of a human hair.

 

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