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The remote, tele-operative ultrasound system being used on a patient.

MCPHS Part of International Effort to Develop Ultrasound Technology to Assist in the Diagnosis and Mitigation of COVID-19

  • The first-of-its-kind ultrasound technology would have key applications for imaging and diagnosis of COVID-19 and beyond.

    Jeffrey Hill, BS, ACS, FASE, Department Chair, Assistant Professor of Diagnostic Medical Sonography at MCPHS University, in Worcester MA, has teamed up with an international team of engineers and doctors to assist in the development of a tele-operative, robotic lung ultrasound scanning platform that could change the way ultrasound imaging is performed.

    In the fall of 2019, Hill attended a Higher Education Consortium of Central Massachusetts (HECCMA) event at the Worcester Art Museum; there he met Yihao Zheng, PhD, Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI). At that time, Zheng was working on medical devices and robots for vascular ultrasound, interventional cardiology, and neurosurgery. Zheng also introduced Hill to his colleague, Haichong Zhang, PhD, WPI Assistant Professor in Robotics Engineering and Biomedical Engineering, specializing in robot-assisted ultrasound and photoacoustic imaging. Hill, a cardiovascular sonographer who spent 13 years in clinical research in echocardiography at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester, took an interest in the work and started a collaboration with the WPI team.

    Just a few months later, the COVID-19 pandemic had shifted the applications of robotic ultrasound to the forefront of fighting the disease. In the summer of 2020, Zhang received National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding to lead an international team of experts in building a joystick-controlled, tele-operative, robotic lung ultrasound scanning platform to detect contagious lung disease. The goal of the project is to minimize or eliminate interpersonal contact between the sonographer and the COVID-19 patient. The engineers on Zhang’s team wanted someone with Hill’s extensive research background and sonography expertise, so Hill joined the team and has been working with them on the project since.

    In addition to Hill, the team includes John Hardin, MD, Department of Emergency Medicine, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and MCPHS Adjunct Professor of Physician Assistant Studies; Debra Crandell, EdD, RDMS, MCPHS Diagnostic Medical Sonography faculty member; Beatrice Hoffmann, MD, PhD, RDMS, Director, Emergency Ultrasound, Department of Emergency Medicine, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center; Ryosuke Tsumura, PhD, Post-Doctoral Fellow, Department of Biomedical Engineering and Robotics Engineering, WPI; Keshav Bimbraw, MS, Research Coordinator, Department of Robotics Engineering, WPI; Winston (Wole) Soboyejo, PhD, WPI Senior Vice President and Provost, Department of Mechanical Engineering at WPI; and Shola Odusanya, PhD, Department of Material Science and Engineering, African University of Science and Technology, Galadimawa, Abuja, Nigeria. In addition, Japan-based Yamaha Motor Co. collaborated in the manufacturing of the system.

    Progress on research and development has been steadfast; in less than one year the team has successfully built a gantry-based system that allows a remote operator to conduct diagnostic lung ultrasound. Their initial research details the first-time application, feasibility, accuracy and safety validation of the system. Preliminary results demonstrated that the proposed platform allows for successful acquisition and application of tele-operative diagnostic lung ultrasound in humans. The next step is to conduct a pilot study in healthy volunteers who will receive lung ultrasound from a sonographer operator and from the tele-operative robotic system. The accuracy will be compared and, most important, the safety will be closely monitored. If successful, the team would then bring the technology to hospitals throughout the greater Boston and Worcester area to conduct a clinical trial.

    “The technology is novel and the first step in combining traditional ultrasound and tele-operative robotics,” says Hill. He emphasizes that the goal of their research is not to replace the human operator, but to mitigate the spread of infection between the healthcare provider and patients who have been exposed to highly communicable diseases. The technology has potential implications far beyond the current pandemic. Hill says, “In resource-limited areas and low-and middle-income countries, ultrasound imaging equipment is cost-prohibitive and not available at most healthcare facilities.” The cost of the prototype is a fraction of the cost of traditional ultrasound systems. Hill says he can envision a future in which ultrasound equipment can be sent to underserved locations where there is limited access to doctors and sonographers, permitting an operator to scan a patient remotely from anywhere in the world.

    Hill also says that assisting in the development of the world’s first remote, tele-operative ultrasound system to help fight a pandemic is incredibly exciting—and that he’s learned a lot about biomechanical engineering in the process. “I am honored to work with such a team of experts in their respective disciplines,” he says. “It is amazing how this group came together to work in such a cohesive nature with no agenda, but to develop a novel technology to potentially diagnosis and triage critically ill patients.” Although they are enthusiastic about the preliminary results, Hill says they remain guardedly optimistic, as further research needs to be conducted and validated prior to the dissemination of a large-scale clinical trial.

    You can catch a glimpse of the latest prototype here.