Ultrasound vendors show off new tricks, products at ECR

March 24, 2004

Sales teams emphasize smart functionality, premium performanceMultidetector CT and high-resolution, whole-body MR have taken center stage. But in the wings, ultrasound vendors are pressing ahead with their own brands of

Sales teams emphasize smart functionality, premium performance

Multidetector CT and high-resolution, whole-body MR have taken center stage. But in the wings, ultrasound vendors are pressing ahead with their own brands of technological excellence.

Ultrasound vendors at the European Congress of Radiology, held in Vienna March 5 to 9, spoke in near unison when emphasizing the value of superior image quality and savvy system functionality on the latest ultrasound units. Representatives from Philips Medical Systems, Aloka, and Hitachi Medical Systems focused on the premium end of the ultrasound market. Toshiba Medical Systems chose the meeting to show how benefits of modern-day ultrasound technology can be appreciated in a black-and-white scanner.

For Philips, the ECR provided an opportunity to showcase its new iU22 scanner for a European audience. The premium-end system arrived hot from its mid-February launch and mini U.S. tour (DI SCAN 2/25/04). Building anticipation among attendees, Philips kept its flagship product under wraps until the second day of the congress, placing only a large packing crate on the stand the first day of the technical exhibition. A hand-picked selection of delegates got a peek at the "intelligent ultrasound" (iU) system at an invitation-only evening party. But anyone visiting the booth at the start of the ECR had to return if they wanted to see this much-ballyhooed system.

At the other end of the exhibit hall, Toshiba was being much less coy about its own new ultrasound system. Famio, which formally debuted at this year's ECR, occupied a prime spot in Toshiba's booth for the duration of the congress.

In terms of product ranking, Famio slots between the low-end Just Vision and the black-and-white version of Toshiba's midclass Nemio. The top-of-the range Aplio rounds out Toshiba's ultrasound offerings.

"There is a demand for black-and-white ultrasound, but over the past few years, a lot of new technologies have become available," said Kees van Dashorst, a European product manager in Toshiba's ultrasound business group. "We wanted to combine these into an attractive, next-generation black-and-white machine, to provide an updated model for users of Toshiba's earlier black-and-white systems."

Famio shares the same user-friendly interface as Nemio, offering easy-to-use, programmable image-processing tools and individual key labeling. Tissue harmonic imaging capability is standard. Data can be archived on a CD-ROM.

"It is unique for a system in this segment to have these features," van Dashorst said.

Famio may be positioned in the lower half of Toshiba's ultrasound product line, but customers can still expect high-end performance from it, said Wim van Ingen Schenau, another European product manager in Toshiba's ultrasound business group.

"Feedback from customers confirms our philosophy that the number one priority in ultrasound is image quality," he said.

Toshiba will market Famio to private practitioners, smaller hospitals, and clinics for ob/gyn applications and as a general-radiology workhorse. The slogan, "A smart choice for daily practice," has been chosen to emphasize Famio's compact design and mobility, and its up-to-the-minute technological prowess. The system is being rolled out first in Europe, with deliveries expected to commence in late spring. A date for U.S. introduction and shipping will depend on obtaining FDA clearance.

"The first reaction from people visiting the stand was generally, 'That's a cute system-and what an excellent performance!'" van Dashorst said. "So we are pleased with the first reactions."

Aloka is looking toward larger university hospitals and clinics with its new product offering. The ProSound SSD-5500 SV nudges the performance of Aloka's top-of-the-line digital SSD-5500 system one stage higher with a selection of "supervalue" specialty packages.

Visitors to Aloka's ECR booth were invited to view an SV package suited to advanced ob/gyn applications, featuring real-time 4D ultrasound and simultaneous multiplanar image visualization. An alternative SV version, permitting endocardial analysis and measurement, is available for the cardiology market.

"We were one of the first companies to introduce 4D imaging, back in 1997," said Claudio Buffagni, Aloka's international vice president of sales and marketing. "From that point, we have continued to make improvements."

Buffagni acknowledges that the clinical value of 4D ultrasound is debatable. He notes that 4D imaging can be helpful for certain fetal imaging applications, but that the package's main value comes from its ability to display sagittal, axial, and coronal views.

"This is the feature where we see a real clinical advantage," he said. "The main goal for us is to provide a clinical tool for the user, and then improve the clinical benefit they can get compared with a 2D ultrasound image."

Hitachi also pitched upward with new ultrasound features shown at the ECR. Product managers reinforced the company's branding as "the applications company" by talking up two new specialty breast imaging procedures: SonoElastography and ductal echography.

SonoElastography relies on differences in elasticity between possible lesions and healthy tissue. Inflammatory conditions or lesions offer considerable resistance when squashed, whereas healthy tissues yield readily to applied pressure. Areas of extraordinary stiffness, indicating possible malignancy, are represented in blue during the scan, while sections of compressible, or elastic, healthy tissue are shown in red.

"There is also a middle ground," said Michael Boggs, product specialist with Hitachi Medical Systems. "Some masses, like fibroadenomas, are of mixed tissue type, so they contain stiff and compressible tissue. But you are able to determine this from the color pattern."

Ductal echography involves use of a dedicated probe to scan the breast radially. Patients sit upright during the procedure to maximize mammary duct filling. Operators are expected to pay particular attention to where the Cooper's ligaments (thin hyperechogenic lines) intersect with mammary ducts to spot early cancerous growths, Boggs said.

"This is new technology for the assessment of tissue elasticity," Boggs said. "You are able to pick up smaller masses, say 2 to 4 mm in diameter, sooner and with greater accuracy. No other approach delivers such comprehensive visualization of the development of early carcinomas."

SonoElastography was shown as a work-in-progress at the 2003 RSNA meeting in Chicago and is now available globally as an add-on module to Hitachi's EUB-8500 ultrasound system. European customers are free to use ductal echography with an EUB-8500, EUB-6500, or EUB-5500 digital unit. Customers in the U.S., however, must wait for the probe to win FDA clearance.