Engineers in Britain have developed an ultrasound scanner that costs under 40 pounds to make and could improve prenatal care in parts of the developing world where this technology is out of reach.
The device, if it gets commercial backing, would enter a market where hospital-based ultrasound scanners cost anything between 20,000 pounds and 100,000 pounds ($32,100 to $160,600) and low-cost, portable devices sell for around 4 500 pounds each.
"You could be looking at something certainly less than 200 pounds (to buy)," said Jeff Neasham, the sonar technology specialist at Newcastle University who developed the device with his colleague Dave Graham.
"Things are at a very early stage," Neasham said. "We have talked to a couple of interested companies and have had contact with a couple of charities, but we are still looking for partners."
Maternal death in developing countries
Around 250,000 women die each year from complications in pregnancy and childbirth, 99% of them in developing countries, according to the United Nations.
Some of the world's biggest healthcare equipment companies like General Electric and Siemens are pouring resources into developing low-cost devices for emerging markets.
GE has developed a handheld ultrasound scanner called Vscan with an integrated screen and Seattle-based start-up firm Mobisante has a device that can link to a smartphone for viewing.
The Newcastle University scanner is about the size of a computer mouse and can be used via a USB plug with any PC or laptop built in the last 10 years, which the developers hope will make it accessible.
Keeping costs low is key
Neasham said keeping the cost as low as possible was the main driver behind the project. He said there were some programmes to make computers more available in the developing world but it was still not a given that everyone in Africa would have a laptop.
Neasham tapped into his experience developing systems for imaging the sea bed and looking for shipwrecks to create the device, which uses pulses of high frequency sound, just like any other ultrasound scanner.
"There are tricks we employ in sonar signal processing to simplify the hardware," he said. "There are certainly techniques in this device that to the best of my knowledge have never been incorporated in a medical device before."
He admits the quality of the image needs improving but said it stacked up quite favourably against more expensive scanners.
Neasham said his own experience of becoming a father prompted him to start the project.
"I was sat with my wife looking at our child on the screen. We realised how privileged we were to have access to this kind of care and it was my wife who suggested that I could apply my knowledge from sonar research to try to make this more affordable." ($1 = 0.6211 British pounds).
(Reuters, September 2012)
Pregnancy tests and checkups