A new ultrasonic nanotechnology that could allow scientists to see inside a patient’s individual cells to help diagnose serious illnesses is being developed by researchers at the University of Nottingham.
The new technique would use ultrasound technology – more commonly used to look at whole bodies such as foetal scanners – to look inside cells. The researchers said the components of the new technology would be several thousand times smaller than current systems.
Ideally it would be tiny enough to allow scientists to see inside and image individual cells in the human body, which would further the understanding of the structure and function of cells and could help to detect abnormalities to diagnose serious illnesses such as some cancers.
The work, which is being conducted by the university’s ultrasonics group in the division of electrical systems and optics, has received an £850,000 five-year grant by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).
Ultrasound refers to sound waves that are at a frequency too high to be detected by the human ear, typically 20kHz and above. Medical ultrasound uses an electrical transducer the size of a matchbox to produce sound waves at much higher frequencies, typically around 100 to 1,000 times higher, to probe bodies.
‘By examining the mechanical properties inside a cell there is a huge amount that we can learn about its structure and the way it functions,’ said Matt Clark of Nottingham’s ultrasonics group. ‘But it’s very much a leap into the unknown as this has never been achieved before.
‘One of the reasons for this is that it presents an enormous technical challenge,’ he added. ‘To produce nano-ultrasonics you have to produce nano-transducers, which essentially means taking a device that is currently the size of a matchbox and scaling it down to the nanoscale. How do you attach a wire to something so small?’
Clark said the answer to some of these challenges is to create a device that works optically – using pulses of laser light to produce ultrasound rather than an electrical current.
‘This allows us to talk to these tiny devices,’ he added.
It is also hoped that the new technology will allow scientists to see objects even smaller than optical microscopes and be so sensitive they will be able to measure single molecules.
In addition to medical applications, the Nottingham researchers believe the new technology would have important uses as a testing facility for industry to assess the integrity and quality of materials and to detect tiny defects that could have an impact on performance or safety.
Ultrasonics is currently used in applications such as testing landing gear components in the aerospace industry for cracks and damage that may not be immediately visible or may develop with use.
The group is also looking at developing new inspection techniques for inspecting engineering metamaterials – advanced composites that are currently impossible to inspect with ultrasound. These materials offer huge performance advantages to allow radical new engineering but cannot be widely used because of the difficulty of inspection.
Clark said that his group is also applying its technology to nanoengineering.
‘As products and their components become ever tinier, the testing facilities for those also need to be scaled down accordingly,’ he added.