Surgeon Diagnoses Cancer with an iPhone Ultrasound

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Vascular Surgeon, John Martin found cancerous cells in his own neck while testing a portable ultrasound device called Butterfly iQ, developed by Butterfly Network, a startup based in US, where he is the Chief Medical Officer.

The Butterfly iQ connects to your iPhone and looks a bit like an electric razor. Place it on the area of the body you wish to examine and a black-and-white ultrasound image will appear on your phone.

He had been having an uncomfortable feeling of thickness on his throat. So he exuded out some gel and ran the probe, which is the size and shape of an electric razor, along his neck.

On his smartphone, to which the device is connected, black-and gray images quickly appeared. Although Martin is not a cancer specialist, he knew that the dark, three-centimeter mass he saw did not belong there. “I was enough of a doctor to know I was in trouble,” the Surgeon says. It was squamous-cell cancer.

The device he used is called the Butterfly IQ. The Ultrasound works by shooting sound into the body and capturing the echoes. Usually, the sound waves are generated by a vibrating crystal. But Butterfly’s machine instead uses 9,000 tiny drums etched onto a semiconductor chip.

Making ultrasound devices in a semiconductor manufacturing plant, the company says, makes the technology cheaper and more versatile. It says its machine will go on sale this year for $1,999 (N740,000).

Ultrasound on a chip

Now we think it’s an individual purchase, says Martin. “This gives you the ability to do everything at the bedside: you can pull it out of your pocket and scan the whole body.”

Ultrasound—once practiced only by technicians—has already been spreading among medical specialties as a more routine type of exam. In emergency rooms, doctors use it to quickly look inside a patient’s heart, lungs, and stomach without x-rays. But there’s resistance. Hospitals create revenue by using big, costly machines run by specialists.

John Kendall, Ultrasound Director at the Emergency Department of Denver Health Medical Center, who is one of the company’s advisors, says the images the device creates aren’t as detailed as those produced by high-end ultrasound machines rolled around on carts. But, he says, “the question is whether I can get to a diagnostic answer better.” Considering the device’s cost and the way he can fit it into the top pocket of his scrubs, “it’s not even a fair comparison,” he concludes. “It’s infinitely portable. It’s not even the same genre of machine.”

The company says it hopes to combine the instrument with artificial-intelligence software that could help a novice position the probe, collect the right images, and interpret them. By next year, it believes, its software will let users automatically calculate how much blood a heart is pumping, or detect problems like aortic aneurismsWork in that direction is described in a video released by the company.

Automating interpretation of fuzzy ultrasound images could eventually turn the technology into something easily used by ambulance crews, in remote regions, or even at home. “The ability to acquire an image and know what you are seeing—I think it’s coming,” says Kendall.

The Vascular Surgeon , who since diagnosing his cancer has undergone a five-and-a-half-hour surgery and radiation treatment, believes the devices can take on new shapes, like a patch that could be sent home with patients. Perhaps before too long a parent might diagnose a kid’s fracture at home.

“To look at this as just an ultrasound device is like looking at an iPhone and saying it’s just a phone,” he says. “If you have a window into the body where anyone can afford it, everyone can use it, and everyone can interpret it, it becomes a heck of a lot more than an ultrasound device.”

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