When biomedical engineer Muyinatu Lediju Bell was an undergraduate at MIT, her mother died of breast cancer. Bell thought her mother might have survived if she had been diagnosed sooner, so she decided to investigate what makes some ultrasound images blurry, a problem that limits a doctor’s ability to screen for and diagnose cancer and other diseases.
As a doctoral candidate at Duke University, Bell developed and patented a novel signal processing technique that produces clearer ultrasound images in real time. The solution could particularly help diagnose problems in people who are obese, because fat tissue can scatter and distort ultrasound waves, delaying the detection of a serious disease. “I think it’s unfair that a long-standing technology does not serve a huge group of people that should be able to benefit from it,” she says.
Beyond ultrasound, Bell is now working to improve another type of noninvasive medical imaging technique. Called photoacoustic imaging, it uses a combination of light and sound to produce images of tissues in the body. She is especially interested in using it for real-time visualization of blood vessels during neurosurgeries to lower the risk of accidental harm to the carotid artery, which supplies blood to the brain. Her lab at Johns Hopkins plans to launch a pilot study of the technology in patients in 2017.