Press release | 4.5.2021
Munich, 4 May 2021 - The European Patent Office (EPO) announces that the French physicists Mathias Fink and Mickael Tanter have been nominated as finalists in the "Research" category of the European Inventor Award 2021 for their novel ultrasound imaging system. Shear Wave Elastography (SWE) combines ultra-fast ultrasound imaging and supersonic ‘shear' waves, enabling doctors to diagnose soft tissue conditions such as breast cancer or liver disease. For patients, the diagnosis is quicker and spares them from painful and invasive biopsies.
Merging the worlds of physics and medicine, Fink and Tanter took the pioneering SWE concept emerging from their research, created a prototype device and commercialised it through SuperSonic Imagine, a start-up they co-founded in 2005. To date, the company has sold more than 2 700 devices, which are helping doctors make diagnoses in more than 80 countries around the world.
"Fink and Tanter's device could fundamentally change treatment options for patients by enabling faster and more accurate diagnoses," says EPO President António Campinos, announcing the European Inventor Award 2021 finalists. "Gaining patent protection for both the methodology and technology behind their invention was a vital step in establishing their company and bringing their technology to a global market."
The winners of the 2021 edition of the EPO's annual innovation prize will be announced at a ceremony at 19:00 CEST on 17 June which has this year been reimagined as a digital event for a global audience.
Diagnosing soft tissue diseases, such as breast cancer, can be filled with uncertainty. Doctors frequently have to make the difficult call between a negative diagnosis - which could be fatal if incorrect - or conducting an invasive biopsy to rule out the presence of disease. However, the development of Fink and Tanter's SWE imaging changed this, providing a new tool for doctors to use.
The idea for SWE imaging was first explored by the inventors at the Wave and Acoustics Laboratory of ESPCI ParisTech in in 1996. At the time, Tanter was completing a PhD under Fink's supervision. Together with fellow PhD candidates Stefan Catheline and Laurent Sandrin, Fink envisaged a simple device combining shear waves - low-frequency waves that exert a ‘push' force - with ultrasound to measure the elasticity of a substance. Initially, they planned to use their device to measure the stiffness, and thus maturation, of camembert cheese. However, Fink quickly recognised the method's medical potential for providing precise values for human tissue stiffness. "In every tumour the tissue structure changes," explains Fink, "and shear waves are the only waves that can distinguish this tissue elasticity."
With Tanter, Sandrin and another PhD student, Jeremy Bercoff, Fink was able to develop the critical prerequisite for SWE: a digital ultra-fast ultrasound imaging system. The first of its kind, it was capable of creating 10 000 images per second. Fink, Tanter and Bercoff were then able to create a working SWE prototype by simultaneously generating shear waves at supersonic frequency and observing these waves through ultra-fast ultrasound imaging.
The system works by concentrating a long-duration ultrasound pulse on an area of tissue and moving this at supersonic velocity, thus radiating an intense shear wave. As the tissue vibrates in response to this push force, ultrasound images are taken every second to observe how the shear wave propagates through the tissue. "Our ultrasound creates an ultra-fast movie of the shear waves moving through the body," explains Fink, "With this movie, we can map the stiffness of any tissue." When this information is run through custom software, it creates a high-definition, colour-coded map showing tissue elasticity. Doctors can view this in real-time by moving the ultrasound sounder over a patient's skin, quickly ruling out the presence of diseased tissue or identifying potential problems to be further examined.
With a successful prototype at hand, Fink approached the major medical electronics companies, hoping to find a product development partner. However, the prototype was not taken up due to its huge physical size and its revolutionary software-based architecture - conventional ultrasound scanners were all hardware-based at that time. After 10 years of R&D and having filed applications for two European patents in 2002, the inventors decided to set out on their own to take their research to the medical sector and commercialise their prototype.
In 2005, Fink and Tanter founded the start-up SuperSonic Imagine with six other co-founders, including Bercoff. In 2006, the start-up raised its first round of investment and used this to create ten prototypes that were placed in breast cancer treatment hospitals for initial testing. "It was because we had this patent that when we created SuperSonic Imagine we were able to obtain EUR 10 million from the investor," says Fink. "Without the patent, it would not have been possible."
Their prototype SWE platform proved to be highly successful - it decreased unnecessary breast cancer biopsies by more than half. In 2009, SuperSonic Imagine brought its AixPlorer SWE imaging device (named after the company's location in Aix-en-Provence, France) to market. With approval for clinical use in Europe in 2008 and the USA in 2009, the device has since been picked up around the world: In 2017, an international multi-centre study on 1 134 patients confirmed the benefits of SWE in diagnosing liver fibrosis, a condition underestimated in 10-30% of cases. To date, SuperSonic Imagine's SWE device has been supported by more than 300 peer-reviewed publications, has performed tens of millions of clinical exams worldwide and has been shown to improve the clinical management of conditions ranging from thyroid to prostate cancer, as well as gynaecological and paediatric conditions.
Today, SuperSonic Imagine is well established in China and is growing its global market presence due to an acquisition by US medical technology company Hologic, Inc in 2020. With the global market for diagnostic imaging expected to reach EUR 30.1 billion by 2024, Fink and Tanter's invention is set to capitalise on this growth.
Professor Mathias Alexandre Fink was born in Grenoble, France, on 18 October 1945. Fink studied undergraduate mathematics at the University of Paris and completed a master's degree in physics at the Paris-Sud University in 1968, before receiving a PhD in solid state physics from the École Normale Supérieure - University of Paris in 1970. He has held professorships at Louis Pasteur University in Strasbourg, Paris Diderot University and Collège de France. From 1990 to 2009, he was Director of the Wave and Acoustics Laboratory at ESPCI Paris and in 1997, was awarded the ESPCI professor position he holds today. Fink founded the Institut Langevin (CNRS/ESPCI Paris) in 2009 - a waves and images research institute - and was its director until 2014. His research has led to the creation of six start-ups: Echosens, Sensitive Object, Time-Reversal Communications, Cardiawave, Greenerwave and Supersonic (still serves as shareholder and scientific advisor).
Professor Mickael Tanter was born in Paimpol, France, on 31 December 1970. Following his undergraduate electrical engineering studies at Supélec (École Supérieure d'Électricité), Tanter received a Master of Science in Acoustics from the Paris Diderot University, where he also completed his PhD in physics in 1994. He was a research officer at CNRS, the French National Centre for Scientific Research, in Paris from 2000 to 2005, after which he became a research director of INSERM, the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research. He later worked as Deputy Director of Institut Langevin between 2009 and 2018, as Director of ‘Wave Physics for Medicine' within Institut Langevin from 2008-2018, and now as Director of the Paris Institute of Physics and Technology for Health (Inserm/CNRS/ESPCI Paris). In 2005, he co-founded the start-up SuperSonic Imagine and was also a co-founder of the companies Seisme, Cardiawave and Iconeus.
Mathias Fink and Mickael Tanter hold 42 and 13 European patents, respectively, including the patents EP2561380, EP2342582, EP1866667, EP1546757, EP1998680 and EP1531734 for which they have been nominated for the European Inventor Award 2021.
About the European Inventor Award
The European Inventor Award is one of Europe's most prestigious innovation prizes. Launched by the EPO in 2006, it honours individual inventors and teams of inventors whose pioneering inventions provide answers to some of the biggest challenges of our times. The finalists and winners are selected by an independent jury consisting of international authorities from the fields of business, politics, science, academia and research who examine the proposals for their contribution towards technical progress, social development, economic prosperity and job creation in Europe. The Award is conferred in five categories (Industry, Research, SMEs, Non-EPO countries and Lifetime achievement). In addition, the public selects the winner of the Popular Prize from among the 15 finalists through online voting.
About the EPO
With 6 400 staff, the European Patent Office (EPO) is one of the largest public service institutions in Europe. Headquartered in Munich with offices in Berlin, Brussels, The Hague and Vienna, the EPO was founded with the aim of strengthening co-operation on patents in Europe. Through the EPO's centralised patent granting procedure, inventors are able to obtain high-quality patent protection in up to 44 countries, covering a market of some 700 million people. The EPO is also the world's leading authority in patent information and patent searching.
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