From a Video Game to Health Care

How a $10 Microchip Could Expand Imaging


The baby napped in her mother’s arms.

As the seven-month-old slept peacefully, Dr. Joshua Broder and his colleagues collected 3D images of her brain within seconds, using the same technology that tracks the orientation of your smartphone.

That’s thanks to innovation from Dr. Broder, a physician with the Duke University School of Medicine, and his research colleagues.

“Sure, 3D ultrasound exists,” notes Dr. Broder. “But we’re building a better mousetrap – one that’s smaller, cheaper, more effective – so we can bring it to more health care providers.”

The images of the infant’s brain that Dr. Broder gained with his technology told the same story that other technologies would have shown: The baby suffered from hydrocephalus.

But those other technologies carry costs – figuratively and literally.

A CT scan uses radiation, posing a cancer risk as well as potential developmental risks to an infant. Such a scan, which costs about $1,000, also typically requires transporting a baby or trauma patient from the ER or a clinic to a scanner.

The other likely technology, MRI, presents its own set of challenges: The scan costs about $2,000, and doctors may need to choose between a longer, more detailed scan requiring sedation, or a faster scan, which can diminish detail of images. Choosing MRI may mean a wait of up to several hours, as most hospitals have only one machine; plus, the equipment can be cold and noisy.

"Ultrasound is such a beautiful technology because it's inexpensive, it's portable, and it's completely safe in every patient," Broder says. "In emergency medicine, we use ultrasound to look at every part of the body… we can augment 2-D machines and improve every one of those applications. Instead of looking through a keyhole to understand what's in the room, we can open a door and see everything in front of us."

Dr. Broder found the inspiration for his innovation in a video game system. A few years ago, Dr. Broder was playing Nintendo Wii with his son, when he found himself wondering why the ultrasound probes he used at work couldn’t know their orientations in space just as a game controller could. He took his idea to the engineers at Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering.

The team created a prototype device and has plans for enhancements, which are now possible because of a grant awarded by the Emergency Medicine Foundation of the American College of Emergency Physicians and GE Healthcare.

“We have been envisioning all kinds of technological advancements that are even more clinically valuable and user-friendly,” explained Dr. Broder. “Without the grant, we would have tabled many of our ideas.”

For example, Dr. Broder is aiming for 4D -- adding the element of time – as well as augmented reality.

While Dr. Broder is quick to caution that he and his colleagues are still testing their concepts, he does acknowledge the potential implications for healthcare, especially in developing nations.

“There’s vital importance here to regions of the world where high-tech may not available,” said Dr. Broder. “In places where cost is prohibitive, where infrastructure is lacking, where CT or MRI is simply not an option, this 3D ultrasound innovation could make low-cost imaging available to billions of people.”