Ultrasound Breakthrough Allows Researchers to Listen to Cells in Action

A breakthrough in ultrasonic detection might make cancer and disease screening more accurate than ever.

Researchers at the University of Queensland have developed a new method for building ultrasound sensors that dramatically improves the technology’s sensitivity.

The microscale device built by the new technique.

The new technique leverages nanofabrication and nanophotonics to build a microscale device that appears much like the hob on your kitchen stove. Once ultrasound waves come in contact with the device’s suspended disk, its surface distorts just enough for a laser reader to run over the surface and observe the disk’s change in shape. From these tiny distortions, researchers can generate an ultraprecise image.

According to the project lead, Professor Warwick Bowen of the Australian Center for Engineered Quantum Systems, this new ultrasonic device has enormous potential.

“This is a major step forward, since accurate ultrasound measurement is critical for a range of applications,” said Bowen.

Currently, ultrasound is most frequently used to image biological systems ranging from a baby in a mother’s womb to tumors hiding deep within tissue. The technology is also deployed to view underwater objects and aid in the piloting of drones.

“We’ve developed a near perfect ultrasound detector, hitting the limits of what the technology is capable of achieving,” Bowen remarked. “We’re now able to measure ultrasound waves that apply tiny forces—comparable to the gravitational force on a virus—and we can do this with sensors smaller than a millimeter across.”

Researchers are so impressed with the potential for their new ultrasound sensor that they believe that they will soon have the ability to detect the vibrations caused by a single cell’s internal action. If that type of resolution could be achieved, researchers believe they’ll have a tool that could determine which cells within a biological system are working properly, and which have malfunctioned.

With such a tool, medical screenings could potentially become so sophisticated in their scope that problems from viral infections to cancer development could be detected so quickly that they may not have the chance to spread at all.