UBC Reports | Vol. 49 | No. 1 | Jan.
3D Ultrasound, Coming Soon to a Doctor Near You?
Improved technology gives doctors a better look inside
By Michelle Cook
Moms-and dads-to-be may soon be able to see their growing
babies more clearly thanks to new ultrasound technology. The
advanced imaging method could also help medical professionals
to improve their diagnostic capabilities in detecting cancer
and removing tumours. That is, if theyre willing to
make the switch to 3D, says Robert Rohling, a professor of
Electrical and Computer Engineering at UBC.
Three-dimensional ultrasound is slowly making its way
into the marketplace, but doctors have to be convinced that
its useful to them, otherwise they wont spend
the money to buy expensive machinery or spend the time training
to use it. Theyre tough customers for good reasons,
so you have to prove to them it will make a difference in
making better diagnoses or interventions, Rohling says.
3D ultrasound has been used in research labs for almost 15
years, but it is just now beginning to make its way into practice.
Rohlings research focuses on developing better quality
3D-ultrasound technology for clinical use. His efforts were
boosted recently by the purchase of a GE 730 Expert. The first
equipment of its kind in Western Canada, Rohling calls it
the Porsche of ultrasound machines.
So, just what difference does 3D make when it comes to taking
a peek inside ourselves?
Judging from the image that pops up on the GE 730 of twin
fetuses wiggling around in the womb, its a lot like
the difference between black and white and colour TV.
Rohling prefers to use the analogy of a loaf of bread.
2D-ultrasound images are flat, grainy-looking and unless
youre a skilled technician, can be hard to decipher,
Rohling says. 2D generates a cross-sectional image which
is like looking at a single slice of bread, instead of the
These images can be difficult to interpret because we live
in a three-dimensional world, Rohling explains, and our mind
difficult time trying to fit these two-dimensional pieces
together into a three-dimensional object.
3D ultrasound also produces cross-sectional slices, but stacks
them together into a volume -- like a whole loaf -- that has
width and depth and height and can be viewed from multiple
By using computer graphics principles that are a lot
like the ones youd see in the latest blockbuster movies,
Rohling says 3D ultrasound can also be used to single out
individual features, like skin, for examination. The technique
is called volume rendering.
Rohling is quick to point out that 3D technology is not meant
to replace 2D ultrasound, which is currently used in 99 per
cent of ultrasounds worldwide, but to complement it.
From the patients point of view, 3D can give them a
better understanding and a more concrete connection between
what they see on the screen and reality.
While experienced sonographers already do a tremendous amount
with 2D images, Rohling, who has a background in biomedical
engineering, hopes his research will help doctors to improve
on a number of procedures. In the area of diagnoses, he hopes
to enhance the clarity and resolution of images so that clinicians
can see minor details and detect cancers at earlier stages.
In the area of intervention, which includes biopsies and surgery,
he is working on providing special ultrasound tools and software
to physicians to allow them to perform these faster, easier
and more accurately.
He has also been working with a team of researchers nationwide
on neurosurgery innovations. Currently, physicians must rely
on day-old MRI scans when operating on the brain. The problem
is the brain can shift and expand during surgery. Rohling
hopes to use a small brain probe to provide surgeons with
real-time ultrasound updates of the MRI scan during
Rohling says its difficult to guess when 3D-ultrasound
technology will become commonplace, but estimates clinical
results will start to appear in a few years. In the meantime,
Rohling is using the latest in ultrasound technology on himself.
Ive used the GE 730 to look at my abdomen and
kidneys and they scanned very well. Everything seems fine,