Mathias Fink and Mickael Tanter
Ultrasound imaging method using shear waves
Finalists for the European Inventor Award 2021
Diagnosing soft tissue conditions such as breast cancer or liver disease can be filled with uncertainty. To identify whether such a disease is developing, doctors must analyse subtle changes in the patient's tissue structure. The diseased tissue becomes stiffer and less elastic but can still be incredibly difficult to distinguish from healthy tissue. Doctors often then have to make the call between providing a negative diagnosis - which could be fatal if incorrect - or conducting an invasive biopsy to rule out the presence of disease.
The concept of using ultrasound imaging to assess the stiffness and elasticity of a material emerged while Tanter was completing a PhD under Fink's supervision in the mid-1990s. They began investigating how shear waves - low-frequency waves that exert a "push" force - could measure the stiffness and therefore maturation of camembert cheese. However, the inventors quickly realised the technology also had potential for medical diagnosis when applied to an area of tissue. Together they developed a prototype Shear Wave Elastography (SWE) platform, which projects a long-duration ultrasound pulse at supersonic velocity. The patented system can capture 10 000 images per second, thereby providing a detailed snapshot of how the shear waves ripple through the tissue and so making it possible to detect any minute differences in its elasticity. High-definition, colour-coded maps generated in real-time now give doctors an effective, non-invasive tool to identify diseased tissue.
Effective for doctors, comfortable for patients
In 2006, ten patented SWE prototypes were placed in breast cancer treatment hospitals for initial testing. The devices proved to be highly effective, decreasing unnecessary breast cancer biopsies by more than half. The success of their innovation enabled Fink and Tanter, through their start-up SuperSonic Imagine, to bring their Aixplorer® SWE imaging device to market in 2009.
In 2017, an international multi-centre patient study confirmed the benefits of SWE in diagnosing liver fibrosis. To date the company has sold more than 2 700 devices, helping doctors to make diagnoses in more than 80 countries around the world. Fink and Tanter remain stakeholders in SuperSonic Imagine and act as advisers. Both are professors at the École Supérieure de Physique et de Chimie Industrielles de Paris, France, underlining their ability to combine an appreciation of practical medical needs with research excellence.
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