A new wave of imaging technologies, driven by the falling cost of computing, is transforming the way doctors can examine patients.
Today a new wave of imaging technologies is again transforming the practice of medicine. They include new pathology tools to give doctors an instantaneous diagnosis, as well as inexpensive systems, often based on smartphones, that can extend advanced imaging technologies to the entire world. On the horizon is magnetic imaging technology that will combine the speed of X-ray-based computerized tomography, or CT, with the ability of M.R.I. systems to image soft tissues. The advances are being driven largely by the falling cost of computing, as well as the increasing availability of other miniaturization technologies, including nanotechnology.
Advances in digital imaging are also transforming conventional laboratory tools. In a lab at Columbia University Medical Center, Matthew Putman shows how software can speed the work of a human pathologist. Dr. Putman specializes in the design of advanced polymers. However, his research requires advanced imaging software, and that has led to the development of new computerized analysis tools. His nSPEC pattern recognition software can automatically scan 12 slides and generate the same results in just 15 minutes. The software can be trained to identify a wide variety of biological structures ranging from neurons in the brain to pathogens.
Other traditional imaging technologies are being rapidly transformed by computation. For example, similar to Dr. Contag’s research with endoscopes, the electronics corporation Philips has developed an advanced ultrasound system that is inserted through a patient’s mouth into the esophagus. Known as three-dimensional transesophageal echocardiography, or 3-D TEE, the technique produces an image of the heart from inside the patient’s rib cage, which often prevents ultrasound from capturing clear images. Computer processing of the data, which is transported by a fiber-optic cable from the sensor, creates stunning high-resolution 3-D videos of beating hearts.
More recently, Philips has used computation extensively in its Heart Navigator system, which provides a three-dimensional map for a cardiologist. Only recently certified in the United States by the Food and Drug Administration, it has made the implantation of replacement heart valves by catheter routine in Europe.