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Lost In Space: Kidney Stones, Via Ultrasound

February 1, 2012
Written by: , Filed in: Abdominal Imaging, Diagnostic Imaging, Emergency Radiology
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Space technology may soon help earthbound patients suffering from kidney stones. Scientists are working on ultrasound technology that can not only detect the stones but also push them out of the kidney.

Michael Bailey, PhD, one of the project leaders, summed up the research this way:

We have a diagnostic ultrasound machine that has enhanced capability to image kidney stones in the body. We also have a capability that uses ultrasound waves coming right through the skin to push small stones or pieces of stones toward the exit of the kidney so they will naturally pass, avoiding surgery.

Dr. Bailey is a co-investigator with the Smart Medical Systems and Technology Team at the National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI) in Houston. He is also a researcher at the Applied Physics Laboratory at the University of Washington (APL-UW) in Seattle. He was quoted in an NSBRI news release.

Astronauts are particularly susceptible to kidney stones because it’s difficult to keep them hydrated. Also, bones demineralize in reduced gravity, leading to elevated levels of salt in urine, which is a kidney stone risk factor.

Dr. Bailey and Lawrence Crum, PhD, principal investigator for the Smart Medical Systems and Technology Team and also an APL-UW researcher, have tinkered with an ultrasound machine to create a combined B-mode and Doppler mode. In Doppler mode, for reasons that are not yet understood, a kidney stone can appear brightly colored and twinkling. So, said Dr. Bailey:

We present the stone in a way that looks like it is twinkling in an image in which the anatomy is black and white, with one brightly colored stone or multiple colored stones.

The stone can then be targeted with a focused ultrasound wave to push it toward the ureter. The stone moves about a centimeter per second.

This technology obviously can be used on the ground as well. Dr. Bailey said the focused wave could clean up stone fragments that typically remain after kidney stone surgery.

“Space has demanded medical care technology that is versatile, low-cost, and has restricted size,” said Dr. Crum. “All of these required specifications for use in a space environment are now almost demanded by the general public.”

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A radiologic technologist asks a friend to be a guinea pig for a test of new MRI software. The test saves the friend’s life. Read about it on our Facebook page.

Related seminar: Imaging Advances: Abdominal, Thoracic, Skeletal

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