Radiology poised to be disrupted as entrepreneurs work to create smaller, cheaper imaging devices that perform as well or better than big, expensive imaging systems
Handheld ultra-sound scanners that are as “cheap as a stethoscope” is the goal of a $100 million development project. Just as the clinical laboratory industry is seeing entrepreneurs pour hundreds of millions of dollars into projects intended to create miniature medical laboratory testing devices, so also is radiology and imaging a target for ambitious entrepreneurs.
The vision of biotechnology entrepreneur Jonathan Rothberg, Ph.D. is to have patients take a trip to their neighborhood drugstore rather than an imaging center the next time they need an ultrasound or MRI.
Rothberg is the driving force behind a $100 million startup called Butterfly Network. He hopes to disrupt the status quo in radiology by creating an ultrasound scanner that “is as cheap as a stethoscope” and would allow physicians or other healthcare professionals to do imaging studies using a device not much larger than a smartphone, MIT Technology Review reports.
Because of his innovations in human gene sequencing, Rothberg’s name should be familiar to pathologists and medical laboratory professionals. He was the founder of 454 Life Sciences, the first “next-generation” DNA sequencing company, which Swiss-based Roche acquired for $155 million in 2007.
A more recent Rothberg company, Ion Torrent, invented a cheaper and faster sequencing machine, which Life Technologies bought for $725 million in 2010. A 2013 Forbes magazine story credited Rothberg’s DNA-sequencing startups with “singlehandedly” bringing about “a dramatic drop in sequencing costs.”
Now Rothberg, a chemical and biomedical engineer, is setting his sights on creating a handheld device that will “transform medical imaging and non-invasive surgery by leveraging advances in semiconductors, deep learning and cloud computing,” Butterfly Network stated in a press release. Butterfly Network is part of Rothberg’s Connecticut-based 4Catalyzer healthcare incubator.
Using Smaller Devices to Create a Window into the Body
While Rothberg has not described in detail how the device will work or what it will look like, MIT Technology Review reports that patent applications describe the company as creating “compact, versatile new ultrasound scanners that can create 3-D images in real time. Hold it up to a person’s chest, and you would look through ‘what appears to be a window’ into the body, according to the documents.”
MIT Technology Review writer Antonio Regalado reported Rothberg as “guaranteeing the device will cost a few hundred dollars, connect to a phone and be able to do things like diagnose breast cancer or visualize a fetus.”
By using artificial intelligence, or so-called “deep learning,” the tool will improve its imaging the more it is used.
Access to the cloud will allow the device to shift through libraries of images to identify characteristics and extract key features that will automate diagnoses.
“We want it to work like ‘panorama’ on an iPhone,” Rothberg told MIT Technology Review, referring to a smartphone photography function that automatically assembles a composite image.
“When I have thousands of these images, I think it will become faster than a human in saying ‘Does this kid have Down syndrome, or a cleft lip?’ And when people are pressed for time it will be superhuman,” he added.
The Aim Is Not to Make Radiologists Obsolete
Rothberg, who expects to have a prototype built within a year, told WIRED magazine that the scanner should be so easy to use a nurse practitioner or technician could use it without any training.
While the device has the ability to disrupt the radiology sector, Rothberg repeatedly has said Butterfly’s aim is to develop fast and efficient imaging techniques and improve medical care in corners of the world lacking healthcare resources, not to make radiologists obsolete.
Rothberg has invested $20 million of his own money in three-year-old Butterfly Network, which he co-founded with Nevada Sanchez, an MIT electrical engineer who had triple-majored in math, physics and engineering. Stanford University and Germany’s Aeris Capital also are behind the startup, according to MIT Technology Review.
Rothberg’s interest in ultrasound technology is heightened by his daughter’s battle with tuberous sclerosis, a genetic disorder that causes benign tumors to grow on organs, including the brain, heart, eyes, kidney and lungs. Rothberg’s goal is that his new device will one day be able to target and destroy tumors using concentrated sound.
“This may be an inflection point with our understanding of human biology,” Rothberg told WIRED. “In the next 10 years, we’ll see diagnostics as well as medicine change. And that will come both from medicine and devices and the information systems that support them.”
Given Rothberg’s track record of innovation in gene sequencing, his ambition to engineer small, inexpensive, and easy-to-use ultra-sound scanners must be taken seriously. The profession of radiology and medical imaging is a ripe target for innovators because of so many imaging systems in use today are big and bulky and can cost a $1 million or more for a hospital to purchase and install. Just as pathologists are watching new technology transform medical laboratory testing, radiologists are poised to see a similar technology revolution in medical imaging.
—Andrea Downing Peck