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Hair-thin ultrasonic probe could help examine hard-to-reach parts of the body

Professional Engineering

The optical sensor has a diameter of 125 micrometres – approximately the size of a human hair. The photo shows it against a penny for perspective (Credit: Dr Salvatore La Cavera)
The optical sensor has a diameter of 125 micrometres – approximately the size of a human hair. The photo shows it against a penny for perspective (Credit: Dr Salvatore La Cavera)

An ultrasonic imaging system fitted on the tip of a hair-thin optical fibre could help examine hard-to-reach areas within the body, its developers have said.

The probe, which will visualise cell abnormalities in 3D, was developed at the University of Nottingham.  

The technology produces microscopic and nanoscopic resolution images, which will help doctors examine cells in areas such as the gastrointestinal tract. It could also offer more effective diagnoses for diseases ranging from gastric cancer to bacterial meningitis.

The high level of performance the technology delivers was previously only possible in state-of-the-art research labs with large scientific instruments.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) funded device also reduces the need for fluorescent labels – chemicals used to examine cell biology under microscope – which can be harmful to human cells in large doses.

Research author Salvatore La Cavera said: “We believe its ability to measure the stiffness of a specimen, its bio-compatibility, and its endoscopic-potential, all while accessing the nanoscale, are what set it apart. These features set the technology up for future measurements inside the body, towards the ultimate goal of minimally invasive point-of-care diagnostics.”

Currently at prototype stage, the ‘phonon probe’ is capable of being inserted into a standard optical endoscope, a thin tube with a powerful light and camera at the end that is navigated into the body to find, analyse, and operate on cancerous lesions, among many other diseases. Combining optical and phonon technologies could speed up the clinical workflow process and reduce the number of invasive test procedures for patients.

By scanning the ultrasonic probe, the device can reproduce three-dimensional maps of stiffness and spatial features of microscopic structures, at and below tissue surface. It does this by imaging small objects like a large-scale microscope, and contrasting to differentiate objects like an ultrasonic probe.

The Nottingham team’s findings were published in Nature journal Light: Science & Applications.

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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.


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