New Ultrasound Technique Could Offer Cheaper Option for Lung Health Assessments

October 16, 2020
Whitney J. Palmer

The strategy could be a less expensive alternative to CT when evaluating pulmonary fibrosis and pulmonary edema.

A new ultrasound technique has been shown to quantify lung scarring and detect lung fluid. It is a strategy, researcher said, that can be a non-invasive, more affordable option than CT.

In a study published Oct. 15 in IEEE Transactions on Ultrasonics, Ferroelectrics, and Frequency Control, researchers from North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill outlined the technique that they have already shown is effective in rats. A study in humans is currently underway, and if successful, it could give healthcare providers a tool to better determine the efficacy of medical interventions aimed at reducing pulmonary fibrosis or pulmonary edema. 

“CT scans use radiation, so you want to limit their use. They are also expensive and require a trained radiologist,” said co-senior author Marie Muller, Ph.D., associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at N.C. State. “Ultrasound is a good solution because it does not pose a cancer risk. It’s portable, it’s relatively inexpensive, and our technique effectively gives users a quantitative assessment of the fibrosis.”

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Giving providers an easy-to-use tool to evaluate treatments could have a positive impact on patient care, they said, because the most common form of pulmonary fibrosis affects 200,000 Americans with 50,000 new cases diagnosed annually. The team is also investigating, with support from a National Institutes of Health grant, how well their technique can quantify pulmonary edema in heart failure patients. Making that assessment is critical, they said, 75 percent of those patients experience pulmonary edema.

“Being able to monitor pulmonary edema in patients with heart failure would also be very useful,” Muller said. “This is often done by assessing fluctuations in a patient’s body weight in order to estimate how much fluid has collected in the patient’s lungs – which is not as specific as we’d like it to be.”

With their automated assessment technique, the ultrasound transducer collects data and feeds it through a computational model that can calculate the density of healthy alveoli in the lung and offer a quantitative assessment of how much fibrosis is present in the lungs. The team said they are also testing whether their strategy can correctly identify how much water has collected in the lungs.

Their technique is different, they said, because previously existing strategies could only provide qualitative assessments, alerting providers to whether lung health was “bad or good” without offering a measurable gradient. The output of this new strategy is a number that can be captured and understood by providers without an expertise in ultrasound.

“The automated quantitative assessment would allow the technology to be used by personnel with minimal training and would allow healthcare providers to compare data across time,” Muller said. “For example, caregivers would be able to tell if a patient’s edema is getting better or worse.”