Until recently, if you needed an ultrasound scan, it meant a trip to a hospital or a specialist’s office with an expensive, stand-alone machine. That’s changing, thanks to a new device called the Butterfly iQ—a $2,000 smartphone-connected imager that puts the ultrasound right into doctors’ hands. Approved by the FDA in October 2017 for 13 clinical applications (including obstetric, lung, and cardiac imaging), the device’s pioneering ultrasound-on-a-chip technology was developed by Dr. Jonathan M. Rothberg, who sequenced the first individual human genome and invented the low-cost Ion Torrent DNA sequencer (which was acquired by Life Technologies for $725 million in 2010). He spent five years developing the Butterfly scanner, which started shipping to physicians and hospitals last fall. Here’s how this portable scanner could transform healthcare.
A cost-saving chip
Traditional ultrasound machines use fragile and expensive piezo crystals to create body-penetrating ultrasonic waves. Butterfly iQ replaces these crystals with a single silicon chip, drastically lowering the device’s cost and eliminating the need for any hardware other than a smartphone. Its $2,000 price tag (versus $10,000 for traditional machines) puts the device within reach of smaller medical practices, health clinics, and first responders. It could help patients, too, by saving them a hospital visit.
The Butterfly iQ app (currently available for Apple’s iOS) lets users store and share scans over a Wi-Fi or cellular connection. That means experts can remotely review images or even guide users through scanning, allowing clinics without an on-staff specialist to offer ultrasounds. The device is currently only approved for sale in the U.S., but has been used to train healthcare workers in Tanzania, Uganda, and Kenya. Butterfly is seeking global regulatory approvals, a potential boon for the two-thirds of the world that currently has no access to medical imaging.
Traditional ultrasounds are difficult to capture, in part because doctors have to use different probes (with varying ultrasonic waves) for different body parts. Butterfly’s semiconductor technology can emulate all three wave patterns in one probe, and the app includes presets that are tuned to the depth and size of specific body parts, like the heart or bladder. The app also uses AI to tell users if they’re getting good quality images, making the device almost as easy to use as a stethoscope–and soon, perhaps, almost as ubiquitous.
1. A single silicon chip creates ultrasonic waves that can penetrate through the body.
2. Presettings in the device guide the user to position the scanner to get a full image.
3. Smartphone connectivity allows users to share images through the HIPAA–approved Butterfly iQ app.