Diagnosis by phone.Israeli researchers have discovered a way to transmit medical images via a cellular phone, opening up the possibility of providing sophisticated diagnosis and treatment to millions of people who live a long distance from modern medical centers.

Unlike existing systems, which are based on conventional, stand-alone medical imaging devices, Prof. Boris Rubinsky of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has come up with the idea of a new medical imaging system that consists of two independent components connected through cellular phone technology.

Rubinsky, who worked on the research with Yair Granot and Antoni Ivorra, of the Biophysics Graduate Group, has already proven the feasibility of his new concept, which could be developed with various medical imaging modalities.

The need for a technology that offers diagnosis by phone is urgent. According to the World Health Organization, some three-quarters of the world’s population has no access to ultrasounds, X-rays, MRIs and other medical imaging technology used to diagnose anything from tumors, to confirming signs of active tuberculosis infections or monitoring the health of developing fetuses during pregnancy.

These include not only the millions of people who live in developing nations, but many more who live in rural areas of developed countries. Cell phone use, on the other hand, is rising rapidly. It is estimated today that more than 60 percent of all cell phones currently being used in the world are in developing countries.

The conventional medical imaging systems in use today are self-contained units combining data acquisition hardware with software processing hardware and imaging display. They are expensive devices that require sensitive handling, and extensive user training.

They are also usually only available at treatment centers that have the financial and manpower resources necessary to use them.

Even when such equipment does exist in developing countries, it is often not in use because it is too sophisticated, in disrepair or because health personnel are not trained to use it, says Rubinsky, head of the Research Center for Bioengineering at the Benin School of Computer Science and Engineering, and a professor of bioengineering and mechanical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley.

“Imaging is considered one of the most important achievements in modern medicine,” said Rubinsky. “Diagnosis and treatment of an estimated 20 percent of diseases would benefit from medical imaging, yet this advancement has been out of reach for millions of people in the world because the equipment is too costly to maintain. Our system would make imaging technology inexpensive and accessible for these underserved populations.”

Using Rubinsky’s technology, an independent data acquisition device (DAD) with limited controls and no image display, at a remote patient site, would be connected via cellular phone technology with an advanced image reconstruction and hardware control multiserver unit, at a central site (which can be anywhere in the world).

The unprocessed, raw data from the patient site DAD is transmitted by cell phone to a cutting-edge central facility that has the sophisticated software and hardware required for image reconstruction.

This data is then returned from the central facility to the cellular phone at the DAD site in the form of an image and displayed on screen. “The DAD can be made with off-the-shelf parts that somebody with basic technical training can operate,” Rubinsky notes.

The fact that the image itself is produced in a centralized location and not on the measurement device means that technological advances in medical imaging processing are made available to remote areas of the world.

The key benefit of this, says Rubinsky, is that by simplifying the apparatus at the patient site, the cost of medical imaging devices is reduced, as is the need for personnel at the patient site to be trained in advanced imaging.

The researchers chose electrical impedance tomography (EIT) to demonstrate the feasibility of using cell phones in medical imaging. EIT is based on the principle that diseased tissue transmits electrical currents differently from healthy tissue. The difference in resistance from electrical currents is translated into an image, which can be transmitted via cell phone technology.

The new technique, which is jointly patented and owned by Yissum, the Hebrew University’s Technology Transfer Company, and by the University of California, Berkeley, was published in the online issue of the journal, Public Library of Science ONE (PLoS ONE).

Commercialization efforts will be made by Yissum and by Berkeley’s technology transfer organization.

The work on this project was supported by the National Center for Research Resources at the US National Institute of Health, the Israel Science Foundation and Florida Hospital in Orlando. Research is continuing to further develop the technology with various imaging modalities.