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Could Wire-Laced Tissue Replace Scanners?

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Paramedics rush an unconscious patient into an emergency department. The staff hustles over with a portable electronic device on a cart. A nurse carefully attaches a small wireless transmitter to a certain place on the patient’s skin.

On the cart, a monitor flickers. The transmitter is reading signals from an electronic node just beneath the skin. Meeting at that node are wires that lead throughout the patient’s body. The device on the cart turns the input from those wires into a full-body image of the patient.

Just as a mechanic can plug into a car’s engine computer and read codes that show exactly why the vehicle isn’t running properly, so can the doctor see from the monitor screen where and how the body has been damaged.

Armed with that knowledge, a trauma surgeon gets to work. No CT scan first. No MRI. No X-ray. Not even an ultrasound.

What triggered this futuristic fantasy? The online publication Sunday in Nature Materials of an article announcing the creation of engineered tissue that contains an embedded three-dimensional network of nanoscale wires. Said Charles M. Lieber, PhD, senior author of the article:

Ultimately, this is about merging tissue with electronics in a way that it becomes difficult to determine where the tissue ends and the electronics begin.

Dr. Lieber is the Mark Hyman Jr. Professor of Chemistry at Harvard. He was quoted in a Harvard news release.

Maybe it’s far-fetched to imagine that engineered tissue might be placed throughout a person’s body, linked in an internal head-to-toe monitor. But the researchers were able to construct bioengineered blood vessels. Might such tissue one day replace damaged or clogged segments of arteries—and be designed to give continuous readings on blood flow and pressure, maybe even analyze the chemical content of the blood?

Could a damaged heart be replaced by a bioengineered one with built-in monitoring and imaging capability?

Could a layer of wired tissue be inserted under the scalp to not only do brain scans but also read brain waves, allowing no-hands control of, well, almost anything?

Could wired tissue be implanted in the breasts of women at high risk for cancer and engineered to scan the breast daily? Could the scans be wirelessly transmitted to a physician’s office, where a computer would read them and alert a radiologist if it detected any change?

Within a few years, probably. And does such tinkering have profound implications for the practice of radiology in the just-over-the-horizon future? Almost certainly.

In little more than a generation, MRI and CT have revolutionized medical imaging, giving doctors incredibly more information than their predecessors could dream of having during the plain old X-ray era. To paraphrase the old-time entertainer Jimmy Durante, we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

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Ultrasound and lasers can help radiologists look inside a patient—or just help a patient look good. See our Facebook page to learn why vanity is a driving force behind new imaging-related technologies.

Related seminar: National Diagnostic Imaging Symposium™

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