COVID-19 graphic image

Ultrasound may prove to be effective, noninvasive treatment for COVID-19

Previous research shows ultrasound can reduce other types of inflammation

Ultrasound technology is best known for its medical imaging capabilities, but biomedical engineering researchers at the University of Minnesota together with clinical colleagues from the University of Minnesota Medical School’s Division of Rheumatic and Autoimmune Diseases are examining if ultrasound may be an effective treatment for the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

Several of the University researchers are part of a Minneapolis-based start-up company, called SecondWave Systems, that seeks to build a low-cost, wearable ultrasound device that is placed over the ribs area to noninvasively apply energy to the spleen to drive anti-inflammatory effects for various health conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis and sepsis. The spleen plays multiple supporting roles in the body. It acts as a filter for blood as part of the immune system.

“At first glance, some may question how applying ultrasound to the spleen could help treat health disorders with hyperinflammation, but multiple groups at the University of Minnesota and across the United States have obtained good results with reducing inflammation with ultrasound in animal research and human pilot studies,” said Hubert Lim, a University of Minnesota biomedical engineering associate professor in the College of Science and Engineering and the Medical School. Lim is also a co-founder and chief scientific officer of SecondWave.

“We are now shifting our attention to research that could be beneficial for the hyperinflammation in the lungs that patients experience in COVID-19,” he added.

Lim and his colleagues are working with industry and medical collaborators around the world to conduct pilot studies to collect data on the use of ultrasound stimulation to treat COVID-19. They hope to collect enough data to submit for regulatory approval to use a low cost, portable device in full-scale human clinical trials.

Lim said one of the biggest advantages to using the ultrasound device is safety.

“Ultrasound is just high-frequency sound waves that have been well-characterized over decades for medical imaging applications with well-established safety guidelines for clinical use so there could potentially be fewer side-effects compared to medications,” Lim said.

“Our aim is to noninvasively treat the hyperinflammation in the body and lungs experienced by COVID-19 patients by applying ultrasound for several minutes each day to reduce or avoid severe symptoms.”

Anuj Bhardwaj, co-founder and CEO of SecondWave, said that this new device also addresses the cost and size issues of existing ultrasound devices.

“One of the bigger drawbacks to previous ultrasound therapy has been that the devices are bulky or cart-based and cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Bhardwaj said.

SecondWave has created a high-performance phased-array ultrasound system on a small, wearable platform for the cost of a smartphone. The devices can also be disinfected and reused. 

“This will enable widespread use and deployment to potentially treat COVID-19 patients and those who suffer from acute and chronic inflammation disorders” Bhardwaj said.

drawings of the ultrasound device
SecondWave Systems, that seeks to build a low-cost, wearable ultrasound device that is placed over the ribs area to noninvasively apply energy to the spleen to drive anti-inflammatory effects.

“Our data so far has been encouraging,” Lim said. “We’re excited to begin more trials to build increasing evidence for the efficacy and safety of ultrasound to treat COVID-19.”

To learn more about groundbreaking ultrasound research at the University of Minnesota published recently in Nature Communications, read the article “Ultrasound stimulation of spleen could lead to new treatments for inflammatory arthritis.”

Story by Rhonda Zurn

Technology development and research for the wearable ultrasound devices performed by SecondWave and the University of Minnesota have been enabled through a $3.125 million Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) award from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). For more information about SecondWave, visit the SecondWave website.