Although there are various efforts under way to create a working Star Trek-like medical tricorder, such a device isn’t available for general use just yet. In the meantime, however, doctor’s offices may soon be equipped a piece of equipment that wouldn’t look at all out of place in the sick bay of the Enterprise. Developed by engineers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, it’s a hand-held scanning device that provides real-time three-dimensional images of the insides of patients’ bodies.
The scanner utilizes optical coherence tomography (OCT), which has been described as “optical ultrasound,” in that it uses reflected light – as opposed to reflected sound – to image internal structures. Along with an OCT system, the device also incorporates a near-infrared light source, a video camera for obtaining images of surface features at the scan location, and a microelectromechanical systems (MEMS)-based scanner for directing the light.
Near-infrared light is used because it isn’t absorbed by biological tissue to the extent that other frequencies of light are, allowing it to penetrate deeper into the body. As the light encounters structures within that tissue, however, some of it is reflected back to the surface. Algorithms in the OCT system analyze that reflected light to create 3D images of those structures.
The engineers hope that the scanner could be used right in doctor’s offices or clinics, to assess hard-to-see-from-the-outside maladies such as ear infections. It may also be particularly valuable when examining diabetic patients, as it could be used to monitor the health of their retinas – doing so could catch retinopathy, which can lead to blindness, before it gets too far.
Additionally, it is hoped that the scanner will allow health care practitioners in developing nations to better assess the well-being of their patients than would otherwise be possible.
The project is being led by Stephen Boppart, a physician and biomedical engineer with the university. He and his team recently received a US$5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health Bioengineering Research Partnership to further develop of the technology.