MCNC, the nonprofit research and advanced computing/networking facility, says it has launched a new life sciences program to develop, model, prototype and test biomedical equipment with the goal of improving patient diagnosis and treatment.

MCNC says that its Materials and Electronic Technologies Division (METD) has recently focused on applying “microfabrication” tools and techniques, including micro-electro-mechanical-systems or MEMS, to devices in biomedical research. Such devices include glucose monitoring sensors, devices for characterizing biological processes in cells, and implants for neural prosthesis.

METD has teamed up with Duke University on a five-year award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to develop miniaturized ultrasound devices. The Duke-MCNC partnership has earned three grants for $1.5 million over five years.

The METD group submitted the proposal for the ultrasound device to the NIH, which granted approval Sept. 15, according to MCNC spokesperson Yokima Cureton. Cureton said MCNC is just now beginning work on the project.

“The idea behind this new device is that there is a push to place ultrasound imagers into catheters,” Cureton says. “This would benefit patients needing treatment for heart disease to observe in real time the behavior of the patient’s heart without the need for invasive surgery … a small catheter would be used instead to take images of the heart. Catheter-based ultrasound could also be used for determining the amount and characteristics of plaque present in arteries.”

Reducing size, improving performance

The project began when a group at Duke came to MCNC’s METD division with the problem that current ultrasound transducer arrays are expensive to make, are too large and do not provide sufficient performance.

Leading that project are Olaf von Ramm, director of the Duke’s Center for Emerging Cardiovascular Technologies, and David Dausch, team leader for METD’s Sensors & Actuators Group. They are developing microfabricated high-resolution 2-D ultrasound arrays and will integrate them with existing 3D imaging methodologies developed at Duke for real-time cardiac catheter-based imaging.

This technology could enable heart surgeons to watch real-time ultrasound video of the heart and arteries during catheter-based surgical procedures such as angioplasty, allowing navigation of the catheter and assessment of plaque. Current 2-D ultrasound arrays are too large to fit inside of a cardiac catheter. However, by applying microfabrication technology to the ultrasound transducer, the MCNC-Duke team aims to shrink these components so that they can be used inside a 2 mm diameter catheter, small enough to fit inside of coronary arteries.

“This is a perfect example of how current MEMS technology can revolutionize the state-of-the-art in biomedical devices,” Dausch said in a statement. “We believe that the microfabricated arrays will provide higher resolution and better sensitivity in a smaller package than current transducers.”

Based in Research Triangle Park, MCNC is a nonprofit corporation that offers access to advanced electronic and information technologies and services for businesses, state and federal government agencies and North Carolina’s education communities. MCNC operates a research and economic development division and a high performance computing and communications division.

“MCNC has a successful track record of capitalizing on our technological innovation and expertise,” Kenneth Williams, vice president of METD, said in a statement. “We are once again putting our strengths to the test as we transition into the life sciences. We strongly believe that our existing knowledge base will greatly benefit universities and small companies locally and nationally.”