Electronic Design

Software Moves Into Uncharted Medical Territories

While hardware has become a commodity item in electronics technology, software continues to play a more critical role, and it’s no different for medical electronics. In fact, as medical electronic systems become smaller and more sophisticated, software will begin to assume greater dominance in this field.

We all know about simulating designs of IC chips, systems, and even entire plants in software, well before anything is ever built. That same capability has extended into the biomedical field, where software is giving medical providers a more detailed view of what goes on in the human body. Let’s just look at a few examples.

In one case, a group of researchers at the Stanford University Medical Center (www.med.stanford.edu) is exploring the power of a software system that lets vascular surgeons "sketch" several possibilities for impending surgeries. The software lets them preview the likely results before making any incisions. They’re doing this by collecting 3D nuclear-magnetic-resonance (NMR) data that describes the patient’s anatomy of the arteries and carotids, along with snapshots of blood flow at various points. Software then converts the data into a numerical mesh that represents the vessels. Surgeons use CAD software to add hypothetical bypass grafts to the mesh. As a result, simulations will show how various graft placements can be optimized to minimize blood clots and come up with safer surgical procedures.

The power of software is already showing itself in present-day medical treatment systems. The pioneering Intensity Modulated Therapy Treatment system for cancer radiation from Varian Medical Systems (www.varian.com) is merely one example where software rules. The system relies heavily on software for its accuracy in destroying cancer cells and sparing the good cells. The software synchronizes the radiated beam and microwave power, and controls both the dose and the system’s servo-motion part. We can expect even greater precision from such systems in the next couple of years.

In medical imaging, software is a crucial element. This is particularly true in non-invasive diagnostic techniques for procedures like colonoscopies, renal system diagnosis, and brain tests, where a complete and accurate diagnosis is possible without physically invading the human body. At the State University of New York at Buffalo (www.buffalo.edu), for example, researchers developed software that renders 3D pictures of the brain from NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) data, allowing them to digitally parcel off different brain areas and precisely calculate their sizes and volumes. The goal is to obtain a better understanding of the human brain’s behavior and thus help standardize the way neurologists interpret NMR views.

TAGS: Medical
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