A smartphone-linked low-cost scanner developed by a leading American biotech entrepreneur looks set make medical imaging more accessible and might eventually lead to new ways of killing tumour cells and other non-invasive surgical interventions.

Smartphone-Linked Low-Cost Medical Imaging on the Way?

Jonathan Rothberg is not ready to reveal the details of exactly how the miniature scanner will work, or what it will look like, but he assures us that it will be small and relatively cheap and will connect to a smartphone. His company Butterfly Network is now working on the device, which will be able to display medical images – e.g. visualising a fœtus or helping to diagnose breast cancer – and could eventually lead to new ways of destroying cancer cells by using heat. The technology and concept drawings have been filed with the US patent office and the product is projected to be on the market in eighteen months’ time.

The project is already backed by seed funding worth $100 million provided directly by Butterfly Network founder Rothberg in addition to the patents on which the new product will be based, and by other investors including Stanford University (which has many biotech specialists at work) and Germany’s Aeris Capital. Rothberg has already founded and sold two DNA sequencing companies – Ion Torrent and 454 Life Sciences and he is known in Silicon Valley as a leading expert in marrying semiconductor technology to problems in biology. What brings all the parties together is the drive to improve medical imaging. Further down the line they intend to combine computing and biomedical knowhow to enable non-invasive surgery.

The device announced by Butterfly Network could eventually replace the cumbersome and expensive scanners in use today in the healthcare field. Rothberg is guarding the secrets of his invention closely, but has nevertheless sketched out some idea of what it will be able to do.

Most ultrasound machines use small piezoelectric crystals or ceramics to generate and receive sound waves. But these have to be carefully wired together, then attached via cables to a separate box to process the signals. Moreover, using the current approach, the reflected signals are usually seriously degraded.  Rothberg’s hints suggest that Butterfly is looking to apply an emerging technology whereby ultrasound emitters are etched directly on to a semiconductor wafer.  Such devices, known as ‘capacitive micro-machined ultrasound transducers’ (CMUTs), enable faster 3-D imaging, with a wider range of view, and in resolutions down from millimetres to micrometres.  The improvement in image quality will also depend heavily on the algorithm developed by the Butterfly Network team.

However, the potential benefits of the new technique do not end there. Rothberg’s daughter suffers from tuberous sclerosis, a rare disease that brings on seizures and can cause dangerous cysts to grow in the kidneys, which has galvanised him to extend the field of application of his technology beyond pure diagnostics to actual treatment. Ultrasound works by shooting out sound and then capturing the echo, but it can also create beams of focused energy, which could be harnessed by chip-based devices to perform non-invasive surgery, such as destroying tumour cells, much more effectively than is the case today. In addition, following the recent discovery that neurons can be activated by ultrasonic waves, Butterfly Network’s small devices might also be used as a means of feeding information to the brain.

By Simon Guigue