Ultrasound: Not just for baby pictures

U-M researchers making "knifeless" surgery a reality for babies with congenital heart defects

A “hole” created in atrial tissue using “knifeless surgery” techniques Dr Owens and his team hope to use to create flow channels in the hearts of infants with congenital heart defects.

Anyone who has had a baby is familiar with ultrasound. That squirt of gel on your belly and the magic of the image of your little developing baby. Those images are made possible by high-frequency sound waves that bounce off the baby and back to the transducer in the hand of the technician or doctor. It’s that same technology, but on a much more intense level, that Gabe Owens, MD, PhD, is using in his research.

“We’re working to harness the energy the ultrasound emits and use it for therapeutic purposes,” says Dr. Owens. His research focuses on opening flow channels in the hearts of babies with congenital heart defects.

“Some babies are born without the plumbing in their hearts that allows oxygen-rich blood to move from the lungs to their body.”

Currently, those babies undergo surgery or catheter-based interventions to create what Dr. Owens calls a flow channel, which is basically a 4 to 5 millimeter hole in the heart that allows oxygen-rich blood and non-oxygenated blood to mix together. With this new technology, Dr. Owens hopes to be able to create those flow channels without any surgery — using only ultrasound.

Dr. Owens is collaborating with a team of biomedical engineers from the School of Engineering as well as with HistoSonics, an Ann Arbor-based company that is also developing this ultrasound-mediated tissue treatment technology termed “histotripsy”.  To create the flow channels, Dr. Owens and Zhen Xu, PhD, a biomedical engineer, have been designing and developing a special, infant specific transducer, the handheld device that delivers the ultrasound.

“We can target the energy deep inside tissue and direct it to a specific target. Using different ultrasound settings, we can create micro-bubbles that we can see in the precise location where we want to create a flow channel. Once we know we’re in the right location, we can deliver the energy that turns the bubbles into acoustic scalpels and creates the hole.”

“We’ve done a lot of feasibility and laboratory studies to demonstrate that we can create these flow channels using ultrasound. Our goal is to have an FDA-approved clinical trial in three to four years,” says Dr. Owens. “Our relationship with HistoSonics will significantly cut our costs and help us get this technology into clinics to start making a difference for children sooner. They are providing shared technologies and great resources to help navigate the regulatory process.”

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Gabe Owens, MD, PhD is a pediatric cardiologist with the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital Congenital Heart Center.  Dr. Owen’s research interests include improving care and outcomes in the cardiac ICU and using therapeutic ultrasound to repair heart defects.


University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital is consistently ranked one of the best hospitals in the country. It was nationally ranked in all ten pediatric specialties in U.S. News Media Group’s “America’s Best Children’s Hospitals,” and among the 10 best children’s hospitals in the nation by Parents Magazine. In December 2011, the hospital opened our new 12-story, state-of-the-art facility offering cutting-edge specialty services for newborns, children and women.