Research-Animal Ultrasound Imaging

One of the more exciting developments in technology for life science research has been the adoption of medical imaging technologies for use with research animals. The ability to image animals in vivo not only reduces the need to sacrifice animals, but also enhances the information obtained from animal studies by allowing a researcher to follow the same research subject over a long period of time. Clinical imaging modes like computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) have all been adapted for use with research animals, as has ultrasound. Each mode has its strengths and weaknesses, but when used in concert, the different modes are highly complementary.

In ultrasound imaging, high-frequency sound waves are sent into the body and the reflected echoes are detected. Similar to underwater sonar, ultrasonic imaging relies on differences in density to cause characteristic echoes. These changes in density are correlated with anatomical features. The imaging device converts the timing and intensity of the echoes into an image of the internal anatomy, providing basic imagery of the internal organs and other structures.

More advanced ultrasound techniques can provide further information that can be of even greater benefit to disease research and drug discovery. Certain modes can be used to measure and track blood flow and even the oxygenation of the blood within the body. As with other imaging methods, contrast agents may be used to provide better imaging of particular items of interest, including certain molecules. Although the molecular-imaging capabilities of ultrasound are limited, the development of new modes and imaging agents is an active area of product development.

VisualSonics leads the research market with a share of nearly 50%. VisualSonics has continued to enhance its flagship Vevo 770 system and to develop or license new technology. In November, VisualSonics licensed the opto-acoustic technology of Seno Medical for preclinical applications, which should allow better imaging of blood flow and tumor formation. In the next tier of suppliers are the major companies in human ultrasound: Siemens, Philips and GE Healthcare. Although these companies generally do not focus much attention on animal ultrasound, GE did furnish LOGIQ e systems to the Beijing Olympics for use at equestrian venues. The LOGIQ e is a portable instrument, which can often be easier to use with animal subjects. GE Healthcare has also initiated patent litigation against ultrasound provider Sonosite over handheld ultrasound. Although Sonosite is primarily a clinical provider, the company does offer portable ultrasound systems for use with animals. Other participants in the market for animal ultrasound are Aloka, Medison and Esaote. The total animal ultrasound market for research applications was about $60 million in 2007. Adding veterinary applications increases the total market for animal ultrasound to well over $100 million.

Animal Ultrasound at a Glance:

Leading Suppliers

• VisualSonics

• Siemens

• GE Healthcare

Largest Markets

• Academia

• Government

• Pharmaceutical

Instrument Cost

• $25,000–$350,000

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