It’s in the Blood: Microbubbles Help Biologist Jason Castle See Inside the Body

May 28, 2013

A few weeks after GE biologist Jason Castle signed up for EMT training at a hospital near Albany, New York, his crew got an emergency call from the family of an elderly man. The sick man was lying in bed and breathing heavily. He was weak and dizzy, but his symptoms were vague and inconclusive. Castle felt frustrated. “You go in with a blank slate as to what the problem could be, you check the vitals and if you suspect a heart attack, you take him to the hospital for tests,” he says. “If this were the case, between transport, CT imaging, and stent placement an extremely critical one to two hours would have elapsed,” Castle says.

Back in his lab at GE Global Research (GRC) in nearby Niskayuna, Castle got to work. Castle, 35, is an ultrasound researcher experimenting with “microbubbles,” tiny gas-filled spheres the size of red bloods cells that can flow through the bloodstream, reflect sound waves and help flesh out otherwise grainy ultrasound pictures. “They are exactly what they sound like, just little bubbles filled with very dense gas that acts as a contrast agent,” he says. “When you inject these microbubbles, it’s like turning on the light inside the heart.”

“When you inject these microbubbles, it’s like turning on the light inside the heart,” says GE biologist Jason Castle.

Castle is using microbubbles to develop ultrasound technology that could ride inside the ambulance and help medical staff diagnose patients on the spot, potentially saving lives. “Anywhere blood flows, these microbubbles can travel,” he says. “If you are in a car accident and you have internal bleeding, we could tell right away, identify what organs have been injured and where the blood is pooling. You could start these types of tests as soon as the ambulance shows up.”

EMTs could deliver microbubbles in the vein through an ordinary IV injection. The bubbles dissolve minutes after the test and the gas leave the body in the breath.

As impressive as it sounds, Castle and a team of GRC scientists are already thinking about the next step. They are experimenting with using microbubbles as tiny missiles to ferry drugs, antibodies and even DNA payload to tumors, clogged arteries, and whole organs like the liver. When they reach the target, doctors could change the acoustic setting of the ultrasound and burst the bubbles with sound waves. “You pop the bubble and the drug goes wherever you want it to go,” Castle says. “You could administer a fraction of a chemotherapy dose and reduce the side effects. It could have a huge potential for the quality of life of cancer patients.”

Sitting in the back of an ambulance, Castle is thinking about a time in the near future when doctors could use microbubbles to image a patient’s heart and deliver anticlotting drugs at the same time. “Becoming an EMT as well as a biologist working to improve ultrasound gives you a chance to really see both fields,” he says. “As an EMT you see the current standards of care, how things are done, and how they could be done better.”

Disclaimer: Technology in development that represents ongoing research and development efforts. These technologies are not products and may never become products. Not for sale. Not CE marked. Not cleared, approved or authorized by the U.S. FDA or other national regulatory authorities for commercial availability.