Ultrasound innovation cools in the shadow of consolidation

January 7, 1999

After several years of heated R&D advances, technology development in ultrasound is finally beginning to cool. Exhibitors toyed with the next great leap forward—real-time 3-D imaging—but none could manage it. Major and minor players showed

After several years of heated R&D advances, technology development in ultrasound is finally beginning to cool. Exhibitors toyed with the next great leap forward—real-time 3-D imaging—but none could manage it. Major and minor players showed at least some versions of 3-D, however, recognizing its future potential as a flagship technology.

Arguably the best of the 3-D demonstrations was shown by Siemens Medical Systems, which evolved the panoramic imaging algorithms in its SieScape product to do 3-D reconstruction. Suppliers filled gaps for other vendors, such as Acuson, which unveiled a 3-D capability based on TomTec equipment. Even Perception Ultrasound, which assembles its low-cost scanners from off-the-shelf components, had a 3-D capability, thanks to 3-D EchoTech.

Manufacturers also showed what they do best: improvements on conventional 2-D technology. But rather than demonstrating engineering wizardry, advances were evolutionary tributes to improved resolution and productivity. Harmonic imaging was at the top of the list of several vendors, including Acuson, ATL, Siemens, and Toshiba. A close second was new transducer technology, as shown especially by Acuson and Hitachi.

The alliances responsible for some of the new products displayed on the RSNA exhibit floor demonstrated the growing interdependence of the imaging industry. Nothing underscored that trend more than Philips’ acquisition of ATL Ultrasound, a deal that closed in September. But seeing the honeymooners, whose executives projected confidence that the right, even inevitable decision had been made, raised questions about who would be next—and who would be left.

Acuson

  • An alliance with TomTec, announced at the RSNA meeting, is designed to give Acuson of Mountain View, CA, a quick leg up on 3-D imaging. Technology developed by TomTec will be integrated into Acuson’s flagship Sequoia and mid-tier Aspen scanners. The technology is expected to support analyses in cardiology, ob/gyn, and radiology. Proprietary clinical programs will include surface-rendered 3-D fetal assessment and volumetrically rendered 3-D assessments of organs.
  • FreeStyle, a work-in-progress panoramic visualization package, could help take the industry in a new direction for ultrasound imaging. The new visualization tool strings together dynamic image clips of conventional 2-D images into a panoramic or wide field-of-view. This approach was first taken by Siemens with its SieScape product. Acuson algorithms, like those of Siemens, register data from different points recorded in a transducer sweep. Siemens built on these algorithms to develop a 3-D package, and Acuson engineers may be following a similar course.
  • Acuson introduced three new transducers. The endocavity probe, EC10C5, with transmit frequencies from 5 to 10 MHz, is designed for ob/gyn and prostate imaging. The 4V1 scanhead, operating in the range of 1.5 to 4 MHz, allows deep penetration for difficult abdominal and obstetric cases. The 8C4 transducer offers wide-view imaging using a proprietary technology called Curved Vector.
  • Native Tissue Harmonic Imaging (NTHI) on Sequoia and Aspen was optimized for use with contrast agents. NTHI was also migrated to 128XP.

Aloka

  • The Wallingford, CT, company’s premium digital scanner, SSD-5500 ProSound, was shown as a work-in-progress. The system features an advanced digital beamformer and a novel transducer technology called hemispheric sound technology. The scanner has not yet been submitted to the Food and Drug Administration for review.
  • A 3-D capability, called Volume Mode, made its first commercial appearance at the RSNA conference as an option for SSD-1700 DynaView. The technology, cleared by the FDA last March, could be migrated to other Aloka products.

ATL Ultrasound

  • ATL was acquired by Philips in September, but the Bothell, WA, company exhibited in its own booth, a sign that Philips intends to give ATL room to run.
  • Two Medison-supplied systems made their first appearance in ATL’s booth. HDI 1500 is a mid-tier general-purpose scanner, while UM 400 is a gray-scale product dedicated for ob/gyn. HDI 1500 features Tissue Specific Imaging, broadband capabilities, high-performance HDI scan heads, and connectivity. UM 400 is an entry-level system built around a digital platform. Both products were introduced earlier in 1998.
  • Extreme Performance 99 was displayed as an upgrade for HDI 5000. A highlight of the upgrade is pulse inversion technology designed for use with the contrast agents Optison and Levovist. This technique, initially unveiled a year ago, enhances the harmonic signal by digitally subtracting the fundamental signal contained in the echo.
  • A wide-aperture high-frequency transducer, designed for small parts and breast imaging, was released for use on both HDI 3000 and HDI 5000.
  • An advanced workstation, shown initially at the 1996 RSNA meeting, allows 3-D postprocessing of ultrasound images.

Biosound/Esaote

  • Showcased in this Indianapolis company’s booth was AU5, a mid-tier scanner featuring transducers operating from 2.5 MHz to 20 MHz that received FDA clearance in the fall. Key capabilities on the multipurpose system include 3-D imaging, steerable continuous wave Doppler, a 2-MHz to 5-MHz phased-array probe, and a 5-MHz to 7.5-MHz intravaginal probe.
  • A strategic alliance with Summit Medical Technologies, announced at the RSNA meeting, promises to extend sales of AU5 and other members of Biosound’s AU product family into radiology and women’s health markets.

GE Medical Systems

  • An enhanced digital beamformer on board the super-premium Logiq 700MR, featuring Digitally Encoded Ultrasound, was highlighted. The technology, which was introduced in spring 1998, promises improved resolution and penetration by transmitting packets of ultrasound energy coded with sequences of ones and zeroes (SCAN 5/13/98). Codes are used later to identify packets returning in the echo.
  • Logiq 400MD benefited from the migration of 3-D technologies first developed for the Logiq 700MR and Logiq 500MD scanners. Also transferred to 400MD were extended high-frequency performance technologies, including advanced multifrequency and breast imaging enhancements, image archiving capable of storing up to 300 gray-scale or 100 color images on removable disks, and DICOM 3.0 connectivity.

Hewlett-Packard

  • An upgrade commercially released earlier in the year was showcased for the Andover, MA, company’s sole U.S. radiology offering, the mid-tier ImagePoint. Highlights were an upgraded frequency capability of up to 10 MHz, a 7-MHz linear transducer for small-parts imaging, and improved near-field color and color Doppler sensitivity.

Hitachi Medical Corporation of America

  • Hitachi’s premium system, EUB-8000, shown in 1997 as a work-in-progress, was showcased for a scheduled March 1999 launch. The system features a digital beamformer and 128 channels capable of simultaneously processing four lines of information. A unique capability, called dual-vector Doppler, allows simultaneous sampling and comparison of flow at two points on the same vessel or on two different vessels.
  • With the promise of improved contrast resolution, increased signal-to-noise ratio, and better Doppler performance, Hitachi of Tarrytown, NY, released a new line of transducers, called Image Max. The transducers, which are compatible with all Hitachi ultrasound scanners including models 8000, 525, 420, and 405, are based on a proprietary multilayer crystal technology.
  • Hoping to capitalize on a rise in laparoscopic procedures, the company unveiled EUP-OL334. The sonolaparoscopic transducer, which supports Doppler and color-flow imaging, offers dual frequency (7.5/5 MHz) and 90 flexibility up and down, right and left.

Medison

  • Additional transducers were introduced for the Korean company’s flagship 3-D system, Voluson 530D. The new transducers support volumetric acquisition in abdominal and endovaginal scanning. A highlight of the system is 4-D, which generates a continuous series of volumes acquired over time. Although described as real-time, the volumes are not displayed on the fly, but rather require postprocessing.
  • Also featured was Combison 301, a mid-tier system that features a rectal probe for urological applications. As with 530D, volumetric imaging is possible on this system.

Perception Ultrasound

  • The popularity of 3-D engineering extended even to GPS 5000, a low-cost scanner developed by this Bothell, WA, company that ranges in price from $20,000 to $50,000. The technology, like other components of the system, was obtained from 3-D EchoTech, which has designed its drop-in module around an electromagnetic sensor, mounted on the ultrasound probe, that registers the spatial location and orientation of the free-hand-acquired ultrasound images. Images are displayed either as multiplanar reformatted 2-D slices or volume-rendered 3-D images.

Shimadzu Medical Systems

  • Highlighted in the Torrance, CA, company’s booth was SDU-450 Digital System Manager, a multipurpose system that began shipping about three months before the RSNA meeting. The gray-scale scanner, shown as a work-in-progress at the 1997 conference, is remarkable for its use of digital technology, which often is reserved for mid- or high-end systems. Various technologies built into SDU-450 were migrated from Shimadzu MR and CT systems into this scanner, which is being sold mostly for ob/gyn and breast imaging.

Siemens Medical Systems

  • Siemens’ mid-tier scanner, Sonoline Sienna, was commercially launched just weeks before appearing on the RSNA floor. Designed for shared services, the system offers color Doppler, high-frequency imaging, and a steerable beam transducer. The system is built by Japanese partner Matsushita according to Siemens design specifications.
  • A new 3-D capability, dubbed 3-Scape, was unveiled on the Issaquah, WA, company’s flagship scanner, Sonoline Elegra. The new technology builds on 2-D SieScape, which provides a panoramic view of the body. It assembles image data into a translucent 3-D volume from which 2-D slices can be extracted either singly or in three simultaneous scanning planes.
  • The Ensemble Harmonic Imaging package, optimized for use with contrast agents, was released as an upgrade for Elegra. The first part, in spring 1998, was optimized for tissue harmonics. The package, like competing phase-inversion technologies, enhances harmonic imaging but uses a range of frequencies rather than just the second harmonic to create images.

Toshiba America Medical Systems

  • Making its first appearance at the RSNA conference was Toshiba’s value-oriented PowerVision 6000. Introduced last spring, the system featured specialty probes, including a wide-aperture transducer for abdominal imaging; two linear transducers, one for deep peripheral vascular and the other for small parts imaging; and a neonatal head transducer. The system also offered harmonic imaging, for use with contrast media as well as tissue, and Flash Echo Imaging, which measures contrast uptake and washout with the goal of improving perfusion assessments.