Exploring the Potential of Ultrasound for Endometriosis

Endometriosis is a benign and chronic condition that can cause women to experience pain and fertility problems. For a long time, and to an extent still today, surgery is required to diagnose the disease. However, in the hands of an expert, a transvaginal ultrasound can accurately map deep endometriotic nodules and identify pouch of Douglas obliteration in a noninvasive fashion (Figure 1). Though this statement exhibits optimism in the effort to minimize the use of invasive surgery for diagnostic purposes, there are a few limitations with ultrasound in this scenario.

Leonardi Fig 1

Figure 1: Ultrasound depiction of bowel deep endometriosis and negative sliding sign (can only be noted with dynamic movements) (left) and laparoscopic depiction of bowel deep endometriosis and obliterated pouch of Douglas.

This blog post will attempt to highlight a few key issues with ultrasound’s potential in the realm of endometriosis. We also encourage your comments below on how you feel about ultrasound for endometriosis. Ultimately, we must all be critical of what can and cannot be achieved with ultrasound to ensure appropriate day-to-day clinical practice. This then also allows us to pursue ongoing cutting-edge research endeavors.Leonardi

Our first limitation is in the definition of the word, “expert.”  Thus far, one might attach the term “expert” to those responsible for the bulk of the literature on ultrasound for endometriosis. Certainly, in the view of these academics, ultrasound can see much more endometriosis than previously thought. The belief in the value of ultrasound and expertise in scanning/interpreting scans may trickle down the typical training ladder to fellows, residents, and sonographers. But is there any formal teaching—didactic or tactile? Is there any formal assessment of skill to suggest a minimum level of competency? Is there, at this time, even an understanding of how to evaluate a trainees’ learning curve of endometriosis ultrasound? What is to there to stop an individual from claiming competency when ultrasound for endometriosis is still in its infancy? One concern with pseudo-experts is that they may actually impede the advancement of endometriosis ultrasound integration because surgeons do not verify their findings intraoperatively, leading to skepticism.

Another big problem with the current potential for noninvasive ultrasound diagnosis of endometriosis is the inability to visualize superficial endometriosis, the mildest form of the disease. In surgery, deposits of superficial endometriosis are generally small, only a few millimeters in width and depth, and discolored (Figure 2). They sometimes cause adhesions to form between structures, such as the ovaries and the pelvic sidewall or uterosacral ligament. Thus far, no one has been able to directly identify superficial endometriosis deposits on ultrasound. However, soft markers on ultrasound, such as ovarian immobility and site-specific tenderness (ie, the ability to elicit pain with the pressure of the transvaginal probe during the scan) may hold some secrets to the diagnosis of this enigmatic form of the disease. Until further research supports the routine use of these components in ultrasound for endometriosis, the superficial disease remains a surgical, and therefore invasive, diagnosis.

Condous and Leonardi Fig 2

Figure 2: Laparoscopic depiction of small superficial endometriosis deposit.

Despite these limitations and others not highlighted here, the ability to directly visualize the more severe forms of the disease (ie, ovarian endometriomas, deep endometriosis of the bowel, and pouch of Douglas obliteration) has led to two very clear and significant benefits. One, the patient may be able to receive a diagnosis of disease in a noninvasive fashion, which may guide treatment. Second, if surgery is elected as the treatment of choice, surgeons can prepare. If severe disease is noted on a scan, surgeons can anticipate advanced level surgery, which may necessitate skill from a minimally invasive gynecologic surgeon and/or colorectal surgeon. If no disease is identified on a scan, there will be superficial endometriosis or no disease at all in surgery.

Overall, we are at a much better place right now than we have ever been when it comes to ultrasound for endometriosis. There are still limits that must be addressed, many of which are actively being investigated by dedicated teams around the world. This blog commentary does not attempt to offer solutions to the obstacles highlighted. However, please feel free to comment below if you have any thoughts on an approach to these, or other, limitations.

Have you tried ultrasound for endometriosis? What is your experience with ultrasound and endometriosis? What are your thoughts on the limitations of ultrasound for endometriosis? Comment below, or, AIUM members, continue the conversation on Connect, the AIUM’s online community. 

Connect

Mathew Leonardi, MD, FRCSC, is an Honorary Lecturer in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology and PhD student at the Nepean Clinical School, University of Sydney, under the supervision of Associate Professor George Condous. His Twitter handle is @mathewleonardi

From Sonographer to Ultrasound Practitioner: My Career Journey

I have been a sonographer for 18 years, and this year I was awarded Distinguished Sonographer at the 2018 AIUM Annual Convention. I can say without reservation that it is the biggest career honor that I have ever received and a moment that I will never forget. My path to becoming an Ultrasound Practitioner with a faculty appointment in the Department of Reproductive Medicine at UC San Diego has been rewarding, but it has not been easy. To be honest, I wasn’t always sure that I wanted to be a sonographer for more than a few years. I remember asking myself: Is this career as a sonographer enough or should I push myself further and go back to medical school? I have an incredible husband (who is also a sonographer) and he would have supported any choice I made, but ultimately – I decided not to pursue medical school. Even though I made that choice, I also told myself that there was nothing stopping me from learning as much as I could—my degree would not limit my potential and would not be what defines me.tantonheadshotblog

Since then, I have been studying the fetal heart A LOT. I enjoy all aspects of Maternal-Fetal Medicine (MFM) ultrasound, but the heart has always been an area of fascination for me. I love that it is both dynamic and complex, and, in my opinion, the most challenging aspect of fetal ultrasound. I have taken every opportunity to learn as much as I can from the incredible mentors that I have had the privilege of working with over the years. To this day, I am still learning, and I am amazed at all of the details we can see in these tiny little hearts! I eventually got the opportunity to cross train in pediatric echo and I jumped at that chance as well. I really enjoy being a part of a team of providers that can help the families affected by congenital heart disease.

I am, or I guess I should say I used to be, terrified of public speaking. I am proud of myself for overcoming this fear. Being in an academic center, I was used to teaching one on one, but it was about 8 years ago when I really pushed myself out of my comfort zone by lecturing to larger groups in the San Diego community. Putting together lectures can be time-consuming, difficult, and even stressful. I have spent many hours on weekends and evenings working on them, but I have also learned so much in the process. I started by speaking at local societies and hospitals, but over the years I have progressed and now I am proud to be invited to lecture at AIUM, SMFM, and other CME events around the country. Overcoming my fear of public speaking has been a huge stepping stone in my career and I love representing the sonographer voice on a larger platform.

So, how did I become a Practitioner with a faculty appointment?

I had a vision of how an Ultrasound Practitioner could function in our department. After all, by that point in my career, I was a seasoned MFM sonographer with 10 years of experience and I was still incredibly driven to learn and grow. I was keen to expand my skill set to function as a mid-level provider. Ultrasound Practitioner is not a new concept; SDMS had proposed a working model for an Ultrasound Practitioner in 2001. Dr. Beryl Benacerraf, among others, had already been successfully using an Ultrasound Practitioner for years. But working in a large academic center – my vision took years to bring to reality. I knew it would never happen if I didn’t continue to push for it. Along the way, I struggled, I questioned myself, I got overwhelmed, but I never gave up. I also had the support of some key physicians who believed in me. Their support was crucial to my eventual success.

I have now been an Ultrasound Practitioner for 6 years and as our department has grown to 8 ultrasound rooms, my role has expanded. Some of my responsibilities include: checking sonographers’ cases for quality and completeness, directing sonographers to get more images, obtaining images on difficult or complex cases, deeming the exam complete, writing preliminary reports, and discussing routine sonographic findings with patients. This working model frees up the physicians to spend more time with patients with abnormal findings and also allows the sonographers to keep moving with their schedules while ensuring quality patient care. Of course, this is only a snapshot of my day to day work, I still perform many of the fetal echocardiograms. I love to scan and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

My path to becoming a faculty member in the Department of Reproductive Medicine at UC San Diego was similar to my journey to becoming an Ultrasound Practitioner: it took time, lecturing nationally as well as teaching locally, coauthoring research papers and once again, having mentors who supported my appointment.

So, when people ask me about my success, I tell them it is because of hard work, persistence, believing in myself, and having mentors who believe in me too. My advice to sonographers is to know how important your role is; you are not “just a sonographer.” You should always keep learning, take pride in your work, and don’t be intimidated by the hierarchy of medicine. Our voice is crucial to the care of our patients, and that is really what matters.

Benacerraf BR, Bromley BS, Shipp TD, et al. The making of an advanced practice sonographer. J. Ultrasound Med 2003; 22:865–867.

Lockhart ME, Robbin ML, Berland LL, Smith JK, Canon CL, Stanley RJ. The sonographic practitioner: piece to the radiologist shortage puzzle. J Ultrasound in Med 2003; 22:861–864.

Bude RO, Fatchett AS, Lechtanski RT. The Use of Additionally Trained Sonographers as Ultrasound Practitioners. J Ultrasound Med 2006; 25:321–327

Society of Diagnostic Medical Sonography. Ultrasound Practitioner master’s degree curriculum and questionnaire: response by the SDMS membership. J Diagn Med Sonography 2001; 17:154–161.

How has ultrasound shaped your career? If you are an Ultrasound Practitioner, how did you get there? Comment below, or, AIUM members, continue the conversation on Connect, the AIUM’s online community. 

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Tracy Anton, BS, RDMS, RDCS, FAIUM, is an Ultrasound Practitioner with a faculty appointment in the Department of Reproductive Medicine at University of California, San Diego.

Clinical Tests Worldwide

“A pregnancy test and a dip urine,” Dr. St. Louis responded. “Wow!” I replied in surprise. Having completed a fellowship in global health, I had learned that testing was severely limited in resource-limited settings, particularly outside of normal business hours. This was still impressive. We had just been discussing how things were going with his new job at Princess Alice Hospital and what tests were available overnight in his workplace that is located in the eastern mountains of Grenada. During weekday daytime hours, imaging is limited to plain film x-ray. Occasionally, there is an ultrasound technician also available. If desperate, the technicians can be called in from home. All other tests: blood, urine, CSF, must be batched and sent by car via a winding, serpiginous road over a mountain to the capital. If they’re lucky, you may get the test result in about 6 hours; however, most take up to 12 hours. Most advanced imaging, CT and MRI, are only available in the private sector.

I first met Dr. Daniel St. Louis just a few weeks after beginning the Masters of Emergency Medicine program offered by the University of Guyana and started with the help of Emergency Medicine faculty and Vanderbilt University. With other emergency medicine colleagues, I had spent a lot of time helping him learn to perform, interpret, and apply point-of-care ultrasound studies during his training in the Accident and Emergency Department at Georgetown Public Hospital before he returned to his native island in the south Caribbean. Dr. St. Louis immediately saw the benefit of ultrasound during his training and requested every piece of material possible to be able to master sonography.

The care that Daniel and his colleagues provide with limited testing is really impressive. But of all tests that Dr. St. Louis could be equipped with while caring for a sick patient on an overnight shift, ultrasound is uniquely valuable. Bedside ultrasound doesn’t require a technician, it is reusable, it is versatile, it provides rapid diagnosis of many critical illnesses, and it provides the diagnosis to actionable diseases where lives hang in the balance of the minutes and hours ultrasound saves. There are more significant tests: a microscope and Giemsa stain in a malaria endemic zone or rapid HIV testing at the national public health level. But when I was standing in front of a child in shock from shrapnel wounds outside Mosul, Iraq, an ultrasound probe is what I want most.

As bedside ultrasound machines continue to become more portable and more affordable, the significance of bedside ultrasound will continue to grow. This is true in a large academic tertiary medical center, in regional access hospitals in Grenada, and in critical access health posts in the most remote regions of the globe. AIUM and its members are uniquely positioned to aid in providing equipment and, more importantly, providing education and techniques to help improve the quality of bedside ultrasound as one of the most important clinical tests worldwide. Will we be up for the challenge?

If you work in a resource-limited setting, how is ultrasound most useful for you? How have you seen ultrasound incorporated into medical care in other nations? Comment below or let us know on Twitter: @AIUM_Ultrasound.

Jordan Rupp, MD, RDMS, is an Assistant Professor of Emergency Medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and the Director for Global Sounds:  Ultrasound Development Project.  Read more about Global Sounds at www.globalsoundsproject.org or continue the conversation on Twitter:  @globalsounds_us.

Ultrasound Made Me the Doctor I Wanted to Be

I didn’t come into medicine knowing much about what doctors really did. I also didn’t graduate my emergency medicine residency really believing point-of-care ultrasound (POCUS) was all that useful. Maybe it’s just a fad, I remember thinking.Minardi, Joseph J.

There were two things I did come to enjoy about medicine: making interesting diagnoses and intervening in ways that helped patients. Those were the victories and they were always more satisfying when I got to do them as independently as possible. It was great to diagnose appendicitis with a CT scan, but I had to share at least some of the credit with the radiologist.

I remember sometimes being frustrated with the fragmentation of care in American medicine. Send the patient to another facility with these services, order this imaging study by this specialist, consult this specialist for this procedure, and so on.

A few cases early in my career really brought to light these frustrations.

One was a young woman who didn’t speak English who presented to our community hospital who appeared to have abdominal pain. It took hours after getting approval to call in a sonographer, consulting with the radiologist, and eventually calling in the gynecologist from home to take her to the operating room for her ruptured ectopic pregnancy. Hours went by while her condition worsened and I felt helpless, being uncertain about her diagnosis and relying on fragmented, incomplete information from others to make management decisions. Luckily, her youth allowed her to escape unscathed, but I was frustrated with what I didn’t know and couldn’t provide for her: a rapid, accurate diagnosis and quick definitive action.

In another case, a young boy was transferred to our tertiary care center for possible septic hip arthritis and waited nearly 24 hours to undergo more ED imaging, subspecialty consultation, then wait for the availability of the pediatric interventional radiologist to perform X-ray guided hip aspiration with procedural sedation. I remember again feeling helpless and seeing the hopelessness in the eyes of his parents after seeing so many doctors, spending so many hours far from home just waiting on someone to tell them what was wrong with their son and what was going to be done to help him.

After I was asked to lead POCUS education for our residency program and began to embrace it as a clinical tool, I encountered similar cases, but now with much more satisfying experiences for me as a physician, and hopefully, presumably for my patients. Now, I routinely hear stories from my residents and colleagues that go something like Hey Joe, check out this ectopic case, ED to OR in 20 minutes with bedside ultrasound. We have had cases of suspected hip arthritis where we were able to provide a diagnosis and care plan from the ED in 2–3 hours by performing bedside US-guided hip arthrocentesis. These and numerous other cases where diagnoses are made in minutes independently by the treating clinician have convinced me that POCUS can help improve healthcare. My colleagues and I have performed diagnostic and therapeutic procedures that we never would have considered attempting before we could competently use POCUS, allowing us to provide immediate care right where and when the patients needed it.

The “passing fad” of POCUS has allowed me to make medicine and being a doctor more into what I wanted it to be: seeing patients, giving them a diagnosis, decreasing the anxiety over uncertainty, and providing relief for their suffering. I trained and practiced without the advantages of ultrasound and I have seen the positive impact it can have not only on patients but also on the health care system and my job satisfaction as well. The advantages of more immediate, efficient diagnoses, better availability of advanced procedures can all be provided in a less fragmented, more cost-effective manner when treating clinicians are armed with and properly trained to use POCUS. There’s no way I would ever go back.

If you learned how to use ultrasound after you completed your original medical education, how did it affect your career? Comment below or let us know on Twitter: @AIUM_Ultrasound.

Joseph J. Minardi, MD, is Chief of Emergency and Clinical Ultrasound, and Associate Professor of Emergency Medicine and Medical Education at the West Virginia University School of Medicine.

SonoBowl: A Game, A Challenge, An Education

SonoBowlOn July 12, 2018, 4 teams of 4 sonography students each competed in the inaugural SonoBowl, a game pitting the students’ ultrasound knowledge and skills against each other. Howard Community College (HCC) hosted the event, which the American Institute of Ultrasound in Medicine (AIUM) sponsored, and teams from Howard Community College; Montgomery College; Pennsylvania College of Health Sciences; and University of Maryland, Baltimore County participated. Although only 4 students from each team could participate, many more attended to observe.

IMG_0534

SonoBowl teams: HCC Sound Dragons are in red (as is their dragon), UMBC Dopplergangers are in black, PA Penguins are in white (4 in front), and MC Ultrasonic are in white (middle and back rows). AIUM staff are in blue.

If you are interested in hosting your own SonoBowl, you’re in luck. AIUM will be sharing instructions on recreating it, enabling schools around the country and abroad to create their own SonoBowl, where sonography students can come together to compete in ultrasound with question-and-answer sessions, scanning, and case challenges. The following is a review of the inaugural  SonoBowl. If you want all of the details, you’ll need a copy of the SonoBowl Playbook. If you are interested in receiving a copy of the SonoBowl Playbook, please let us know.

HCC and AIUM worked together to quickly pull this event together in just 2 months, including 6 conference calls and meetings—planning the itinerary, developing questions and case challenges, inviting teams and registering them, and setting up the event. Development began in May and concluded with the event, which included:

    • Round 1, Who Gives a Kahoot?: 30 multiple-choice questions and 1 bonus multiple-choice question on Kahoots;20180712_094549
    • Round 2, Mission I’m Possible: 3 rounds of scanning testing vascular, obstetric, and abdominal knowledge; and
  • Round 3, Have You Hertz About My Case Study?: A case challenge.

Round 1 was a question-and-answer session. Each team was supplied (by HCC) with a tablet to use for answering the questions as quickly as they could, as wins were based on speed as well as accuracy. The questions were developed by AIUM with input from Directors and faculty from the schools.

IMG_0591Round 2, which can be seen in this video, was a hands-on demonstration of the students’ skills. The teams were given 15 minutes at each station, equipped with an ultrasound machine and a model, to complete their task and answer the questions, which were provided on a form in an envelope and could be completed on a provided clipboard. A proctor at each station reviewed the image obtained for the task and indicated on the form whether it was correct and whether the answers to the question were each correct. After 15 minutes, the teams would rotate stations until all teams had competed at each station.

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For those students who attended but were not participating, a scavenger hunt was developed to fill this time. The students were randomly divided into 4 teams, each of which included students from each of the schools. Each team was given a campus map and a list hinting at 15 things to find around the campus. They were tasked with answering questions for some and taking a selfie at each to prove they found them. For example, one such hint was “Orange is definitely your color! Take a selfie with your face in the circle,” referring to a sculpture outside one of the buildings. Once Round 2 was complete, a lunch was provided.

Round 3 began with an announcement of where each team stood in the competition; HCC DMS Sound Dragons were in 4th place with 58 points, MC Ultrasonic was in 3rd with 66 points, and
UMBC Dopplergangers and PA Penguins were tied with 74 points each. Knowing how many points they had and the topic of the case study (gynecologic ultrasound), each team then indicated how many points they were willing to wager for the final round. All teams wagered their full points balance.

The teams were given a brief history for a case and shown the ultrasound images associated with it, then were given 1 minute to indicate which of 4 diagnoses was the correct one. After time was up, each team was asked to show their wager, beginning with the last place team, and the scores were adjusted based on their wager and whether they answered correctly. For this inaugural SonoBowl, MC Ultrasonic won the day with 132 points and was awarded the trophy to hold onto until next year’s SonoBowl, when it will be back up for grabs. Each of the winning team’s members also won a free AIUM student membership for a year and an insulated lunch bag containing AIUM gifts.

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If you are interested in receiving a copy of the SonoBowl Playbook, please let us know.

The American Institute of Ultrasound in Medicine is a multidisciplinary medical association of more than 9000 physicians, sonographers, scientists, students, and other health care providers. Established in the early 1950s, the AIUM is dedicated to advancing the safe and effective use of ultrasound in medicine through professional and public education, research, development of guidelines, and accreditation.

Training Beyond Discipline – Developing Devotion in Ultrasound

Mathews Benji KA point-of-care ultrasound (POCUS) revolution is unfolding before our eyes, forever changing the way we interact with patients. It started with a revolution in specialties such as emergency medicine and critical care, and now it has entered into my sphere with internal medicine and hospital medicine. I see this whenever I’m on clinical service. A 3rd year medical student talks about diffuse B-lines as we stop antibiotics and start diuretics on a patient with pulmonary edema; a 3rd year resident asks to look at a patient’s kidney with ultrasound as we manage undifferentiated acute kidney injury; nursing staff curiously looking on as a patient is shown their weak heart as goals of care are discussed.

At the same time, we in internal medicine and hospital medicine are living in a medical world filled with many challenges towards implementation of POCUS. Though there are many devices in the emergency rooms and some in the critical care wards, there are not many in the inpatient wards nor in the clinics. Though numerous workshops and courses abound in POCUS, many attendees do not continue to use this skillset after training. Those that received initial training find it too challenging to discipline themselves to continue to scan.

It is that latter sentiment that caught my attention this last year. The concept of discipline and viewing POCUS through its lens. A quote by Luciano Pavarotti comes to mind,

“People think I’m disciplined. It is not discipline. It is devotion. There is a great difference.”

I’ve often heard the sentiments:

“It is so hard to learn POCUS, how do you find the time for it on a busy clinical service to get images?”

“I find it hard to set aside time during my non-clinical work days as other work and life piles up.”

I’m not sure about you, but the word discipline does not often carry an inspirational tone to it. There is a sense of drudgery, lack of passion surrounding the word. As an ultrasound director, that is the farthest from what I want my learners to experience with POCUS.

When I looked up the word discipline in the Oxford Dictionary there it was as well:

dis·ci·pline
noun
1.
the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behavior, using punishment to correct disobedience.
“a lack of proper parental and school discipline”

2.
a branch of knowledge, typically one studied in higher education.
“sociology is a fairly new discipline”

Is it #1 that we were aiming for? Or at the very least, is that what people are sensing? Hopefully, we’re not using punishment to correct disobedience. The Pavorotti quote struck a chord in me. As a contrast to discipline, we have devotion.

The word “devotion” is defined by Oxford Dictionary as follows:

de·vo·tion
noun
1.  love, loyalty, or enthusiasm for a person, activity, or cause.
“Eleanor’s devotion to her husband”
synonyms: loyalty, faithfulness, fidelity, constancy, commitment, adherence, allegiance, dedication; More

•  religious worship or observance.
“the order’s aim was to live a life of devotion”
synonyms: devoutness, piety, religiousness, spirituality, godliness, holiness, sanctity
“a life of devotion”

•  prayers or religious observances.
plural noun: devotions
synonyms: religious worship, worship, religious observance

Devotion does have some concepts borne from religion or worship but that doesn’t make it an irrelevant word for the POCUS learner or teacher. The first definition of love, loyalty, or enthusiasm captures the essence of what most of us are hoping POCUS to be for our learners. As my good friend and POCUS enthusiast, Dr. Gordy Johnson, from Portland, Oregon, says, we need to remember “our first kiss.” What was the moment that grasped us with POCUS?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not completely opposed to the word discipline, but it moves beyond that if we’re going to develop fully devoted clinicians in the realm of bedside ultrasound. Those that are equipped with the cognitive elements know when POCUS should be used, why it should be used, how to acquire images, and then how to clinically integrate it.

This post was originally intended as a follow-up of the AIUM webinar on the Comprehensive Hospitalist Assessment & Mentorship with Portfolios (CHAMP) Ultrasound Program with hopes to continue the conversation surrounding what makes for an effective training program. The program involved online modules, an in-person course with assessments, portfolio development, refresher training, and final assessments. The key lesson we have learned is that longitudinal training with deliberate practice of POCUS skills with individualized performance feedback is critical for skill acquisition. However, the intangible pieces of how people continued to scan was developing an enthusiasm and love surrounding ultrasound by seeing its impact in the marketplace. As they were continuing to scan, their patients, their students, the many nursing staff were partnering in a stronger way with this diagnostic powerhouse in their hands.

With all this, I cannot help but be optimistic when I see the commitment of many in the POCUS movement already. I would urge all of us to evaluate how we develop devotion in ultrasound, how to tap into the dynamism of the POCUS movement coming up the pipeline with our medical students and residents. They have the potential to disrupt inertia and be an impactful force to integrate POCUS more into internal medicine and hospital medicine.

If you are an ultrasound educator, how do you inspire devotion? What are some of your best practices surrounding training in POCUS? Which do you think is most important: discipline or devotion? Comment below or let us know on Twitter: @AIUM_Ultrasound.

Benji K. Mathews, MD, FACP, SFHM, is the Ultrasound Director of the Department of Hospital Medicine at HealthPartners in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Storing Blood as a Dry Powder

Did you know that blood can only be stored for up to 6 weeks when refrigerated? Because synthetic blood is not available in the clinic, blood supplies must be continually replenished from healthy donors. Even if there is a surge in blood donations at one point in time, 6 weeks later there could be shortages if continued donations do not meet the current demand. Blood can be frozen for a decade or more but significant challenges in processing blood for frozen storage limit this option to specific situations such as for rare blood types or military use. The freezing process currently utilizes high concentrations of glycerol to protect red blood cells during frozen storage but this compound must be removed prior to transfusion, and the de-glycerolization process is very sensitive and time-consuming. Therefore, most hospitals and medical centers utilize refrigeration for blood storage.

What if, instead of refrigerating or freezing blood, there was a method to freeze-dry blood for long-term storage as a dry powder, similar to the process used for astronaut food? This could enable long-term blood storage at room temperature, and when the blood is needed for transfusion the cells could be quickly reconstituted simply by adding sterile water. Not only would this offer another option for long-term storage, it would be particularly useful in situations where refrigeration or freezing is not available, such as in some remote medical centers or for the military in far-forward settings. In addition, this method could enable stockpiles of strategic blood reserves in order to maintain an adequate blood supply during disasters such as hurricanes, which disrupt blood donations.

Blood cells dried

Electron microscopy image of red blood cells after drying/rehydration following ultrasound-mediated loading with preservative compounds.

The idea of turning blood into a dry powder and then rehydrating it for transfusion may sound like science fiction, but could it become a reality? Can nature provide clues to help us solve this problem? There are many cases in history where significant scientific breakthroughs were achieved by studying nature. For example, the Wright brothers studied the characteristics of birds’ wings during flight to discover an effective design for airplane wings. Also, Alessandro Volta invented the battery after carefully studying the electric organ in torpedo fish. In the context of cell preservation, it has been found that some organisms can survive complete desiccation for long periods of time. For example, tardigrades and brine shrimp (“water bears” and “sea monkeys”) can be dried out and remain in a state that approaches “suspended animation” for decades, but when they are rehydrated they return to normal physiological function and can even reproduce. This led us to ask the question, if these complex multicellular animals can survive desiccation, why not individual red blood cells? Scientists have found that these organisms produce protective compounds, including certain sugars and proteins, which prevent damage to their membranes during drying and rehydration.

Unfortunately, human cells do not have the transporters in their membranes that enable internalization of the protective compounds found in organisms that can survive desiccation. Therefore, an active loading method is required. We realized that the process of ultrasound-mediated drug delivery via sonoporation could potentially be applied to solve this problem and enable delivery of protective compounds into human red blood cells. In the past, most ultrasound research has either ignored red blood cells or attempted to minimize sonoporation in these cells. But what if we could intentionally sonoporate red blood cells outside of the body in order to actively load them with protective compounds so that they could be stored as a dry powder at room temperature until needed for transfusion?

Our initial efforts to load red blood cells with protective compounds for storage as a dry powder have been promising. We prepared solutions containing red blood cells, preservative compounds, and microbubbles followed by treatment with B-mode ultrasound for ~60 seconds. After ultrasound treatment, the cells were freeze-dried and stored as a dried powder at room temperature (21–23 °C) for 6 weeks or longer. Cells were rehydrated with water and we measured up to 30% recovery of viable red blood cells. In addition, we performed electron microscopy imaging of the rehydrated red blood cells and observed evidence of normal biconcave-discoid shape. Our next steps involve testing the rehydrated cells in an animal model of acute hemorrhage in order to assess the function and safety of the red blood cells in vivo after dry storage at room temperature.

Research studies are currently ongoing and much more work remains to be done before clinical translation is possible, but if it is successful this approach could have a significant impact on blood supply, particularly in locations where refrigeration and freezing are not available. In addition, this approach could potentially enable dry storage of other cell products. As I consider the possibilities of this approach, I wonder if there are other things that we can learn from nature that could also transform medical practice.

Have you learned something else from nature that has been incorporated into your medical practice? Do you have any ideas that could potentially transform medical practice? Comment below or let us know on Twitter: @AIUM_Ultrasound.

Jonathan Kopechek is an Assistant Professor of Bioengineering at the University of Louisville. His Twitter handle is @ProfKope.