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Doctors With X-Ray Vision?

Sonic flashlight would let physicians see through skin

THURSDAY, Dec. 20, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Move over, Superman. Doctors may soon have a tool that lets them look at a person's organs as though the skin were a window.

The new device, known as the sonic flashlight, projects ultrasound images onto a patient's skin, giving doctors a real-time, three-dimensional view inside the body. The handheld machine may make it easier for physicians to use ultrasound for such tasks as guiding a needle into a vein.

"The image is fused with the actual patient. Doctors can see things where they actually are," says Dr. George Stetten, the creator of the sonic flashlight and a professor of bioengineering at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania. "It lets you do invasive procedures and see where you're going," he explains.

Now when doctors use ultrasound to assist them with invasive procedures, like biopsies or taking samples of a pregnant woman's amniotic fluid, they must turn away from the patient to look at the ultrasound screen as they perform a task on the patient's body. This is not natural hand-eye coordination, Stetten says, and the technique is difficult to master.

Ultrasound imaging is widely used during pregnancy to check on heart and kidney health and also to diagnose cancer. It works by transmitting high frequency sound waves into your body. When these sound waves encounter an object, they bounce back to the transducer. The image is formed as the machine calculates how long it takes each sound wave to bounce back.

Stetten's handheld device places the ultrasound scanner and the display on opposite sides of a translucent mirror, which projects the image onto the patient's skin.

The device isn't ready for clinical trials just yet, Stetten says, but he is working on securing funding to refine and test the device.

"The concept is very good," says Dr. Joseph Yee, a clinical associate professor of radiology at New York University Medical Center and School of Medicine. "The problem with a lot of radiological imaging is orientation, because there is a right-left disorientation." The sonic flashlight, he says, would eliminate that disorientation.

But, he also says he'd like to see clinical trials that examine what the advantages and disadvantages of the device would be. One concern he has is the cost of such a device, and another is whether this machine can get the necessary depth to image people with thick skin or those who are very overweight.

What To Do

To see what the sonic flashlight looks like and learn more about how it works, go to Dr. Stetten's Web site.

To learn more about ultrasound technology, read this article from HowStuffWorks.com.

SOURCES: Interviews with George Stetten, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of bioengineering, University of Pittsburgh, Pa.; Joseph Yee, M.D., radiologist, clinical assistant professor of radiology, New York University Medical Center and School of Medicine, New York City
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