The World’s Tiniest Endoscope Could Fight Heart Disease

Photo credit: Simon Thiele and Jiawen Li
Photo credit: Simon Thiele and Jiawen Li

From Popular Mechanics

  • Australian scientists have designed the world’s smallest imaging device: a scope for taking 3D images inside the blood vessels.

  • It’s meant to help uncover clues about heart attacks and the progression of heart disease.

  • The scientists published their findings on July 20 in the journal Light: Science & Applications.

Heart disease, a.k.a. the “silent killer,” is the leading cause of death in the U.S. About 647,000 Americans die from the disease each year, making up roughly one-quarter of total annual deaths, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Some of the disease’s mechanisms are still murky. Scientists know, for example, that plaques made up of fats and cholesterol build up in the blood vessel walls, blocking the flow of blood. But they don’t understand exactly how these plaques form and collect in the arteries and veins, which is pivotal information in prevention and improved treatment.

Researchers at the University of Adelaide in Australia believe that they have a solution: a minuscule 3D-printed endoscope that’s so tiny, it can even get inside and scan blood vessels in mice.

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Coming in at a humble diameter of 0.457 millimeters, including the catheter sheath, the device is the “smallest freeform 3D imaging probe yet,” the team notes in a new paper, published in the journal Light: Science & Applications.

That impossibly small diameter has outsize importance. Fiber-optic endoscopes—the current state-of-the-art in imaging devices—do provide helpful diagnostic images of some blood vessels, but they’re significantly limited by their size.

“[T]here remains a practical but unmet need for miniaturized high-resolution probes that not only enable the imaging of delicate narrow luminal organs and small animals, but also prevent the potentially severe adverse events from trauma arising from endoscope insertion,” the authors write in the paper’s introduction.

Photo credit: University of Adelaide/Light: Science & Applications
Photo credit: University of Adelaide/Light: Science & Applications

Mouse models are commonly used as a proxy for human cardiovascular disease research. In mouse imaging, scientists can use miniaturized intravascular probes that are just 483 microns in diameter (one micron = one millionth of a meter), but they’re still too wide to study any microstructures set back deeper than 100 microns into the blood vessel. That’s because the scopes have a short depth of focus, leaving out critical structures like adipose cells, cholesterol crystals, and connective tissue out of the picture.

Photo credit: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Photo credit: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

That becomes problematic when researchers want to study the plaques building up inside the veins or arteries, according to Jiawen Li, one of the coauthors and a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Photonics and Advanced Sensing at the University of Adelaide.

“Pre-clinical and clinical diagnostics increasingly rely on visualizing the structure of the blood vessels to better understand the disease,” Li said in a press release. “Miniaturized endoscopes, which act like tiny cameras, allow doctors to see how these plaques form and explore new ways to treat them.”

To fabricate the tiny endoscope, the team 3D-printed the lenses, which are too small to see with the naked eye. Because the device can take images that get about five times deeper into the blood vessels, the scientists think they could use it to study even the smallest blood vessels in the cochlea of the ear and perhaps even parts of the nervous system.

But mostly, the scientists hope to use the ultrathin imaging device to study fatty plaques in the blood vessels and take images of aneurysms. Finally seeing those microstructures clearly could lead to better diagnosis and treatment of cardiovascular diseases.

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