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Making waves: a breakthrough in lung diagnosis

Ultrasound is a powerful diagnostic tool for doctors, but there has always been a blind spot for this imaging technology: the lungs. Now, TMC Employeneur Libertario Demi has made a breakthrough that could change that, and his research paper has been published in Scientific Reports, prestigious journal of the Nature publishing group. 

“In the past,” Libertario says, “ultrasound imaging was not designed thinking of the lungs. It was designed for the soft tissues, the heart, the liver, the abdomen. But in the lungs you have air.” The presence of air hinders ultrasound propagation, and so a clear image is impossible. But Libertario’s studies revealed something that got him very excited: “I started from a peculiarity of lung-ultrasound images – there are some artifacts that are informative on the state of the lung.”

Artifacts are false structures that appear in the ultrasound image but are not actually present in the body. In particular, these are caused by echoes that occur when scanning a part of the body that contains big differences in acoustic impedance – in the case of the lungs: tissue and air.  

“You need a different way of treating and processing the data you receive from the lung,” Libertario explains. And this is the focus of his research paper. “This publication is the first step towards a method that will in the future enable doctors to quantitatively asses the state of the lung with ultrasound.”

So, what would that mean for doctors and patients?

“At the moment, doctors use chest X-ray or CT scans to look at the lungs, but these come with many problems. X-rays are a cancer risk if you get a lot of radiation. Not every hospital has a CT scanner, because it's big and expensive, and  another thing is that not every patient can be put in a CT machine. If you have a patient that is in the emergency unit for instance and has to stay in the bed, you cannot move him or her to the CT.”

Ultrasound, Libertario explains, is safe and cheap and portable.

“The patient can have many scans, so you can do much more frequent diagnosis, which you can't with CT. Price is another important factor. Ultrasound technology is much cheaper. That's important because it will allow more hospitals to have these machines – this means more patients can get this type of diagnosis, faster and easier and earlier.”

Libertario’s goal is to help create an ultrasound probe specifically for examining the lungs. But how close are we to seeing this kind of pioneering treatment being used in hospitals?

“There is still a lot to do. We still have to understand how the results we obtained can be translated into clinical practice.” Libertario explains that his research was conducted in vitro, using synthetic microbubbles supplied by Dutch company Tide Microfluidics. These microbubbles simulated the alveoli structures in the human lung. “I had full control, but it’s very different with real patients – they move, for example. The path is clear, but there is still a lot to do if we want to confirm these results in patients. With clinical collaborators I am now starting a first study on patients which will help tremendously in the development of this technology.”

You can read Libertario’s full scientific paper: Determination of a potential quantitative measure of the state of the lung using lung ultrasound spectroscopy on the Nature website.

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