A compact ultrasonic imaging tool designed at the University of Nottingham, U.K., can be deployed on the tip of a single optical fiber to visualize cell abnormalities in 3D within the body.

The prototype phonon probe can simultaneously access 3D spatial information and mechanical properties of microscopic structures and cells, generating images to nanoscopic resolution. The device is expected to help clinicians examine cells within hard-to-reach parts of the body, such as the gastrointestinal tract, and to generate more effective disease diagnoses without the need for large, complex and costly laboratory equipment.

The noninvasive phonon probe can be inserted into a standard optical endoscope to combine the merits of optical and phonon technologies and speed the clinical workflow process. The device injects coherent acoustic phonons into a specimen, such as a cell, and detects its vibrational response. Laser pulses are absorbed by a nanotransducer, resulting in high-frequency phonons getting pumped into the specimen. A second laser pulse then collides with the resulting sound waves in a process known as Brillouin scattering. A signal processing protocol then renders a spatial measurement from the amplitude decay signature of these sound waves.

Optical fiber probe shown against a penny for perspective. Source: Nottingham UniversityOptical fiber probe shown against a penny for perspective. Source: Nottingham University

The probe system can generate a 3D map of stiffness and spatial features of microscopic structures at, and below, the surface of a specimen. The researchers are exploring the tool's potential in cell and tissue imaging applications and also envision its use for inline inspection in precision manufacturing, 3D bio-printing and tissue engineering.

The research was published in the journal Light: Science & Applications.

To contact the author of this article, email shimmelstein@globalspec.com