Biomedical Ultrasound: a Technology Research Accelerator with Revolutionary Prospects

Institute

Focused on the development of biomedical ultrasound for cardiovascular disease, neuroscience, and cancer, the first technology research accelerator (ART), launched by Inserm in 2016, has already succeeded in developing ten or so innovative technologies. These technologies offer new prospects, both in fundamental and clinical research.

Mickael Tanter, Director, Inserm Biomedical Ultrasound Technology Research Accelerator (ART). © Inserm/ François Guénet

In October 2016: Inserm inaugurated its first technology research accelerator (ART) dedicated to biomedical ultrasound at ESPCI Paris. The objective was to develop high-level cross-disciplinary research, by bringing together the expertise of physicists, biologists, clinical practitioners, and engineers. Based on this novel organizational structure, combined with sizeable resources, the technology research accelerator (ART) set itself the task of accelerating the development of prototypes designed by teams of physicists, with a view to being rapidly made available for use by research laboratories and partner hospital departments. After two years of operations, the results are exhilarating.

From fundamental research to treatment

"Ultrasound waves are used for ultrasound scans or Doppler ultrasonography. However, by altering certain parameters, these waves can deploy very different properties, to generate images, but also measurements or remote treatment," explains Mickaël Tanter, 2014 Opecst-Inserm prize-winner and director of the Wave Physics for Medicine team which hosts the technology research accelerator (ART)*. "Inserm has made an unprecedented effort which has already enabled ten or so breakthrough technologies to be developed, both in diagnostic imaging and treatment."

For example, one of the first imaging projects developed by the technology research accelerator (ART): a miniaturized functional ultrasound neuroimaging device, which is both portable (the subject does not have to be immobilized) and ultra-high performance, to meticulously study brain activity, with higher precision compared to functional MRI or PET. "At present, eight of these devices have been built within the technology research accelerator (ART), destined for partner Inserm laboratories. There are various application prospects, ranging from vision restoration with the Institute of Vision**, stroke imaging with the Cyceron*** laboratory, to addiction, with the Institute of Psychiatry and Neuroscience (CPN)****."

In terms of diagnosis, the technology research accelerator (ART) has also developed new methods for evaluating the hardness of certain organs: a remote tissue palpation technique! One of these methods is able to measure fibrosis, in the same way as elastography, and can also quantify the percentage of fat present in the liver, which has never been achieved previously. This method should become extremely valuable in assessing general hepatic impairment related to certain diseases, notably non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (fatty liver disease) which is currently emerging. Another technology which has been developed offers a means of assessing cardiac stiffness at a given moment during the cardiac cycle. This measurement, impossible until now, could simplify diagnosis in 50% of cases of heart failure, for which no direct diagnostic methods currently exist. "These two methods are now being introduced in several Paris hospital departments."

However, that is not all: there are numerous projects and vast prospects in store. Initial preclinical data are being gathered to provide proof of concept for techniques destined for a therapeutic context, such as ultrasound neurostimulation to treat depression, or the controlled delivery of injected medications in the form of microbubbles, destroyed by ultrasound in the target area, etc.

An efficient model

Breaking the boundaries of existing imaging requires technological advances with a view to improving:

  • acquisition speed, for monitoring process dynamics,
  • spatial resolution, for increasingly small-scale observation,
  • sensitivity, which determines image dynamics.

The technology research accelerator (ART) has been able to achieve these breakthrough innovations owing to the vast calculation capability of current computer cards and the laboratory’s mastery of the physical processes involved. "The technology research accelerator (ART) operates on a project-based approach," the director continues. "Once researchers have provided the initial proof of concept for a prototype, it is included in our multidisciplinary program which allows equipment to be rapidly finalized, then manufactured by our engineers. This accelerates the development and dissemination of these breakthrough technologies to partner hospital departments. This gives them an unparalleled competitive edge in the field, in international research. This is followed by a strategy for the transfer of intellectual and industrial property, strongly supported by Inserm via patents, start-up creation by our trustees, and even patent licenses or partnership agreements with industry, depending on each individual situation. For our partners, the technology research accelerator (ART) is a way of getting ahead on an international level, benefiting from new research technologies in the very early stages of their development."

 

The Biomedical Ultrasound Technology Research Accelerator (ART) is…

  • A support team of 10 highly qualified engineers
  • A unique environment within the new Paris Physics for Medicine laboratory at ESPCI Paris, with worldwide recognition in the field of ultrasound (50 staff members).
  • Approximately 30 scientific publications and 5 patents per year
  • 1 start-up created in two years
  • 8 industrial partnerships
  • 18 research prototypes developed for dissemination in other laboratories and hospitals

Notes :
*unité 979 Inserm/CNRS/ESPCI
**unité 968 Inserm/CNRS/UPMC
***unité 1237 Inserm/Université Caen Normandie
****unité 894 Inserm/Université Paris Descartes