CAMBRIDGE, MA—Draper announced that it has signed an agreement with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (the Gates Foundation) to partner in efforts to enable early detection of high-risk pregnancies in low-resource environments through development of ultrasound imaging systems. High-risk pregnancies are one of the leading causes of maternal deaths in developing countries, according to the World Health Organization, accounting for almost all (99 percent) of the 303,000 maternal deaths recorded in 2015.
Ultrasound imaging, a front-line diagnostic tool for perinatal care, is rarely available in the developing world, where maternal and newborn mortality rates are starkly higher than elsewhere. The development of a portable, durable and inexpensive ultrasound system offers the possibility of broader use of ultrasound. Draper’s objective under the Gates Foundation grant is to explore design options for an ultrasound system in low-resource environments, where both trained operators and image interpreters need not be present.
“Ultrasound is the primary imaging tool for medical assessment of maternal and fetal health, but in developing countries and other low-resource environments, access to ultrasound is severely limited,” said Sheila Hemami, Director of Strategic Technical Opportunities at Draper. “Making ultrasounds more available holds out the promise of improving earlier diagnosis of and intervention in both maternal and fetal conditions that require referrals to higher-level medical facilities.”
The initial concept is an ultrasound blanket or similarly flexible material that can be draped easily over a mother’s abdomen, requiring no specific orientation or alignment by the operator. A sensory array tightly integrated into a blanket and equipped with transducers to generate 3D volumetric ultrasound images will enable clinicians to make accurate diagnoses with high confidence. The blanket could be linked by wire or wirelessly to a display screen, such as a desktop or laptop computer, and the results could be viewed at the point-of-care or remotely via telemedicine.
An interdisciplinary team at Draper is leading the ultrasound feasibility study under a new Draper initiative called Engineering Impact that applies Draper’s capabilities and technologies to global challenges. Engineering Impact’s approach is to identify, develop and execute projects in conjunction with partners working in specific challenge domains, ensuring that the ultimate solutions will be deployable, sustainable and impactful. Under Engineering Impact, Draper is collaborating with government scientists and engineers to develop a real-time measurement system for plastic particle pollution in the ocean; partnering with a children’s hospital in Boston to design, fabricate and test a first-generation prototype of a pediatric heart valve that grows with the child; and working with a consortium of ocean conservation groups to create a prediction system for coral bleaching that will help identify reefs at risk substantially earlier than current approaches, facilitating potential interventions.
“Bringing ultrasound to the points of care in the developing world will be life changing for so many, and it’s precisely the kind of challenge and opportunity for which we created Draper’s Engineering Impact,” Hemami said. “Draper’s innovative approaches to solving seemingly impossible problems by our deep bench of world-class scientists and engineers brings a tremendous resource to many pressing problems in today’s world.”