When someone has a heart attack, it’s crucial that they receive treatment as soon as possible. Emergency medical technicians, however, are limited in how detailed of an on-the-spot diagnosis they can make of a patient’s condition. This means that actual treatment often has to wait until they get the patient to a hospital. That could be changing, however, as a scientist with GE Global Research is now looking into the use of “microbubbles” as a mobile means of imaging the heart and possibly even treating it.
The bubbles that biologist Jason Castle is working with are described as “tiny gas-filled spheres the size of red bloods cells.” Delivered through an ordinary IV, they can travel through the bloodstream to the heart – or anywhere else.
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The microbubbles are highly effective at reflecting sound waves, so when ultrasound pulses are subsequently aimed at a part of the body, the image that results is much more detailed than would otherwise have been possible. If those bubbles contained an anti-clotting agent, it’s possible that they could be burst by adjusting the acoustic setting of the ultrasound, delivering their payload to a targeted region of the heart.
Castle envisions microbubble-aided ultrasound systems being standard equipment in ambulances, allowing responders to make assessments and begin treatment while still en-route to the hospital – and their use wouldn’t be limited just to heart attack victims.
“Anywhere blood flows, these microbubbles can travel,” said Castle. “If you are in a car accident and you have internal bleeding, we could tell right away, identify what organs have been injured and where the blood is pooling. You could start these types of tests as soon as the ambulance shows up.”
The bubbles dissolve minutes after being injected, with the gas being harmlessly exhaled by the patient.
Jason and his colleagues are additionally looking into the possibility of using the bubbles to strategically deliver not only anti-clogging agents, but also other drugs or payloads such as antibodies or even DNA. Again, these could conceivably be delivered to anywhere that’s reached by the bloodstream.
“You pop the bubble and the drug goes wherever you want it to go,” he said. “You could administer a fraction of a chemotherapy dose and reduce the side effects. It could have a huge potential for the quality of life of cancer patients.”
Similar research is currently being conducted at the University of Missouri, where microbubbles with antibodies bonded to them are being used to highlight inflamed arteries in pigs.