Team Engineers Photoacoustic Tomography from Lasers to Create Ultrasounds of Live Small Animals



Scientists from the California Institute of Technology have created a new technique for producing incredibly detailed ultrasound images of living creatures. This technology is called ‘photoacoustic tomography.’  Using harmless laser pulses and ultrasound waves, photoacoustic tomography will allow researchers to study biological processes in real time without putting the subjects at risk. Everything from active organs and brain function to the circulation of cancer cells in the body can be observed and recorded with this new photoacoustic imaging technology.

“Photoacoustic imaging is clearly the safest and most economical approach for longer term real-time imaging of live small animals. The group continues to develop innovative technologies to improve light-based imaging to enhance the system for eventual use in humans.”

Behrouz Shabestari, Ph.D., Director of the NIBIB Program in Optical Imaging and Spectroscopy

Laser light pulses are used to penetrate the body, stimulating the tissue that researchers want to focus on. The laser stimulation causes a slight increase in temperature; this leads to the emission of ultrasound waves, which are subsequently captured and turned into visuals. Because the ultrasound waves can travel with ease through the surrounding tissue, the blur that normally comes with such images is gone. As  result, the pictures provide a remarkably clear image of what is going on inside the animals.

Because there is virtually no danger from this technique, researchers can study the animals for extended lengths of time. This allows them to monitor the effects of test drugs with greater accuracy and detail than ever before. Best of all, they don’t have to worry about the interference from radiation overdoses that can come with X-rays normally used in CT scans. Photoacoustic tomography is ultimately a safer, clearer, and more effective option for the observation of the inner workings of living creatures.

“Our imaging technology-;single impulse panoramic photoacoustic computed tomography (SIP-PACT) allows us to capture structural, functional, cellular, and molecular small-animal whole-body images with unprecedented speed and quality.”

Lihong Wang, Ph.D., Departments of Medical and Electrical Engineering at the California Institute of Technology, and lead author of the study

Research into photoacoustic tomography is ongoing, and scientists believe that soon it could have many more clinical applications. With time and further work, this technology could even be used on humans one day.

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