A USB ultrasound device about the size of a computer mouse that can be manufactured for as little as $50 has the potential to save hundreds of thousands of women and children in the developing world. This low-cost ultrasound can be plugged into any computer or laptop to reveal vital information about the unborn child, say its developers.
This small USB device, roughly the size of a desktop mouse, operates in a similar way to existing ultrasound scanners, using pulses of high frequency sound to build up a picture of the unborn child on the computer screen.
This USB ultrasound device can be manufactured for about $50 says co-developer Jeff Neasham, from Newcastle University. Neasham is an expert in underwater sonar technology and has previously worked developing systems for imaging the seabed looking for shipwrecks or specific geographical features. Neasham also helped create underwater communications and tracking systems.
His unquestioned expertise in sonar signal processing helped keep the manufacturing the cost of the USB ultrasound extremely low. “Cost was the key,” he explained. “Not an easy task when you consider a £20,000 scanner is generally classed as low cost.”
Neasham said it was his own experience of becoming a father and going through the whole antenatal process that prompted him to start the project. “I was sat with my wife looking at our child on the screen, we realized how privileged we were to have access to this kind of care and it was my wife who suggested that I could apply my knowledge from sonar research to try to make this more affordable.” By comparison, a conventional low cost scanner, one’s used in many clinics today, costs around $26,000.
In poorer parts of the world, mostly located in a number of developing countries, childbirth is still considered a very dangerous, possibly fatal event for both the child and the mother. UN statistics concluded that more than 250,000 women die each year from complications that arise during pregnancy or childbirth. Notably, almost all of these deaths, (99 %), occur in developing countries. Unfortunately, most of these deaths are completely avoidable and a lack of access to proper medical equipment and supplies is cited as the number one factor in these cases.
Tested by experts in the Regional Medical Physics Department at the Freeman Hospital, part of the Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, the scanner produces an output power that is 10-100 times lower than conventional hospital ultrasounds.
Medical professionals now hope that the USB ultrasound device can be used to provide their teams working in the world’s poorest nations with basic, antenatal information that could save the lives of hundreds of thousands of women and unborn children.
“Here in the UK we take these routine, but potentially lifesaving, tests for granted,” explains Neasham. “Imaging to obtain even the simplest information such as the child’s position in the womb or how it is developing is simply not available to women in many parts of the world. We hope the very low cost of this device and the fact that it can run on any standard computer made in the last 10 years means basic antenatal imaging could finally be made available to all women.”
Neasham noted that the original purpose had been to make something portable and easy-to-use that would be affordable in developing countries as well as for some applications in the UK where ultrasound is still considered cost prohibitive.
Funded through the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) Knowledge Transfer Account (KTA) and a Proof of Concept loan from NorthStar Ventures, the scanner requires nothing more than a computer with a USB port in order to work. Mr. Neasham said the beauty of this device was that it would complement — rather than replace — the high performance scanners available in hospitals.
Mr. Neasham ended with, “There is obviously the potential to use it to go beyond obstetrics by using it to diagnose conditions such as gallstones, or other conditions that readily show up with ultrasound imaging. Even vets and farmers are interested in affordable imaging.