Novel stamp-sized stickers can take live images of your internal organs

It could be packaged and purchased by patients and consumers.
Deena Theresa
MIT engineers designed an adhesive patch that produces ultrasound images of the body. The stamp-sized device sticks to skin and can provide continuous ultrasound imaging of internal organs for 48 hours.
MIT engineers designed an adhesive patch that produces ultrasound images of the body. The stamp-sized device sticks to skin and can provide continuous ultrasound imaging of internal organs for 48 hours.Felice Frankel
  • The sticker can provide continuous ultrasound imaging of internal organs for 48 hours.
  • The current design connects the stickers to instruments that translate the reflected sound waves into images.
  • The entire sticker measures about two square centimeters across and three millimeters thick.

In what can be called a breakthrough, MIT engineers have made ultrasound imaging equipment lighter, wearable, and as accessible as buying Band-Aids at the pharmacy.

In a paper published Thursday in Science, the engineers unveiled the design for a new ultrasound sticker - a stamp-sized device that sticks to the skin and can provide continuous ultrasound imaging of internal organs for 48 hours.

Generally, ultrasound imaging requires bulky and specialized equipment only available in hospitals and accessible to medical professionals. Providing a non-invasive window into the workings of the body, ultrasound imaging imparts live images of a patient's internal organs. To capture these images, trained technicians manipulate ultrasound wands and probes to direct sound waves into the body. These waves reflect out to produce high-resolution images of a patient’s heart, lungs, and other deep organs.

The current design requires connecting the stickers to instruments that translate the reflected sound waves into images.

"Wearable ultrasound imaging tool would have huge potential in the future of clinical diagnosis. However, the resolution and imaging duration of existing ultrasound patches is relatively low, and they cannot image deep organs," said Chonghe Wang, an MIT graduate student, in a statement.

The patches could communicate with your cellphone

The researchers demonstrated that the sticker devices produced live, high-resolution images of major blood vessels and deeper organs such as the heart, lungs, and stomach in healthy volunteers. The stickers stayed attached to their skin and captured changes in underlying organs for up to 48 hours as volunteers performed various activities, including sitting, standing, jogging, and biking.

Even in their current form, the devices could be applied to patients in the hospital, and could continuously image internal organs without requiring a technician to hold a probe in place for long periods.

"We envision a few patches adhered to different locations on the body, and the patches would communicate with your cellphone, where AI algorithms would analyze the images on demand," says the study’s senior author, Xuanhe Zhao, professor of mechanical engineering and civil and environmental engineering at MIT. "We believe we’ve opened a new era of wearable imaging: With a few patches on your body, you could see your internal organs."

Each sticker could image a different location of the body

The team's ultrasound sticker produces higher resolution images over a longer duration by pairing a stretchy adhesive layer with a rigid array of transducers. "This combination enables the device to conform to the skin while maintaining the relative location of transducers to generate clearer and more precise images," Wang says.

The device's sticky layer is made from two thin layers of elastomer with a middle layer of solid hydrogel, a mostly water-based material that easily transmits sound waves. Unlike traditional ultrasound gels, the MIT team’s hydrogel is elastic and stretchy." The elastomer prevents dehydration of hydrogel,” says Chen, an MIT postdoc.

The bottom elastomer layer is designed to stick to skin, while the top layer pertains to a rigid array of transducers that the team also designed and fabricated. The entire ultrasound sticker measures about two square centimeters across, and three millimeters thick — about the area of a postage stamp.

Currently, the team is working to make the stickers wirelessly. Software algorithms based on AI that can better interpret the stickers' images are also being developed. Zhao's vision of the ultrasound stickers could be packaged and purchased by patients and consumers and used not only to monitor various internal organs, but also the progression of tumors, as well as the development of fetuses in the womb.

"We imagine we could have a box of stickers, each designed to image a different location of the body,” Zhao says. "We believe this represents a breakthrough in wearable devices and medical imaging."

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