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UK Ultrasound breakthrough can pinpoint cancer with precision

1 October 2019

The largest revolution in ultrasound technology in over 60 years is shortly to begin human trials utilising existing technology but in a new way.

The research team based at Heriot-Watt University and part-funded by STFC have unveiled a new technique using super-resolution ultrasound methods that improves resolution by 5-10 times compared to standard ultrasound images.

It allows whole organs to be scanned in super-resolution for the first time which, it is expected, will lead to earlier cancer diagnoses and allow medical staff to more effectively target treatments to any malignant tissue. It could eventually replace the need for biopsy altogether.

Writing in the Journal of Investigative Radiology, the team demonstrated for the first time the detection of prostate cancer by mapping the blood vessels that surround it and showing a different pattern to that of normal tissue.

The enhanced images utilise existing clinical two-dimensional (2D) ultrasound equipment and standard Contrast Enhanced Ultrasound (CEUS) modes. This means hospitals won’t be required to invest in new equipment and no new hardware technology needs to be developed. 

Having demonstrated that it works with live animals, the aim is to start human trials using the new technique later in 2019. Prostate patients will be the first to benefit from the enhanced imaging.

The breakthrough, developed by Heriot-Watt University, uses adaptive optics, first applied in astronomy and then (under STFC funding) successfully adapted for use in optical microscopy, leading to the team developing micrometric resolution ultrasound imaging.

Dr Vassilis Sboros from Heriot-Watt University led the research. He explains: “Ultrasound imaging is an indispensable tool in medical diagnosis, primarily due to its cost-effectiveness and unique real-time capability. However, the limitations of current ultrasound images mean more expensive techniques like MRI are often employed for diagnosis and treatment.

“MRI doesn’t provide clinicians with more detail but it has generally provided better results than other methods. However, in the prostate for example, biopsy has to be performed as a separate procedure which is more expensive for the hospital and can be both disruptive and distressing for the patient.

“Our new technique has the advantage that it can be done as an adjunct to the ultrasound examination which allows the biopsy to be integrated into it. Due to the super-resolution capability of the image created, we anticipate that the ability of the medical staff to pinpoint, diagnose and treat a range of cancers will be greatly enhanced.”

Notes to Editors

The research was funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (ST/M007804/1) project titled: “Imaging the stars from within: Super-resolution contrast ultrasound imaging feasibility”, along with EPSRC, the Medical Research Council and the British Heart Foundation.

Last updated: 02 October 2019

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