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A new class of miniaturized, all-digital ultrasound devices is about to be introduced in Japan by SonoSite Inc., promising to improve patient care and dramatically cut costs for medical facilities nationwide.

The first product the maker from Bothell, Wash., plans to launch in Japan this year is the battery-powered SonoSite 180, the world’s first hand-carried ultrasound system weighing less than 13 kg. Although the machine costs 10 times less than larger, cart-based ultrasound devices, it produces comparable high-quality images, the company says. In the United States the SonoSite 180 sells for around $20,000 per unit.

Under a distribution deal with Olympus Optical Co., SonoSite will initially target its 180 system for use in gynecology, obstetrics, urology and general purpose abdominal imaging. The market in Japan for SonoSite ultrasound products is estimated to be worth $200 million annually, according to David Gusdorf, SonoSite vice president of strategic development.

“The SonoSite 180 is ideally suited for the medical environment in Japan, where home exams are more common, space is extremely limited and where bringing down health system costs is increasingly important,” says Gusdorf.

Roughly 10,000 ultrasound devices in SonoSite’s target segment are sold to hospitals and clinics in Japan each year, with annual market growth somewhere between 5 percent and 8 percent, Gusdorf estimates.

First introduced as a medical diagnostics tool in the 1950s, ultrasound originated with the SONAR (Sound Navigation and Ranging) technology used by submarines in World War I and metal flaw detection from the 1930s.

In medicine, ultrasound uses low-power, high-high-frequency sound waves to visualize many of the body’s internal structures, often eliminating the need for more expensive and invasive procedures.

The key innovation of the SonoSite 180 is the miniaturized digital architecture that allows for significant reductions in size. At the heart of this are four 1-sq.-cm microchips that drive a 6-inch x 7-inch circuit board, replacing the 10 to 20 larger boards in cart-based systems that can weigh in excess of 440 kg.

“We recently carried three SonoSite 180 units on a Tokyo subway during commute time to attend a demonstration meeting. I can’t imagine doing that with any other ultrasound equipment,” Gusdorf said by way of illustration.

The nearest rival that SonoSite faces in Japan is Aloka, which makes a portable ultrasound machine that is dependent on electrical outlets.

“As ultrasound becomes increasingly portable, trained physicians will have the freedom to conduct ultrasound screening at will, during a routine medical exam or in a critical care setting without the time delays inherent in having to refer to another doctor or make another appointment at a separate facility,” Gusdorf adds.

In addition to the SonoSite 180, Gusdorf said he expects the Health Ministry to approve the company’s SonoHeart echocardiography system by the end of this year.

The new system, shown to cardiologists at an American Heart Association meeting in November, is designed to allow doctors to quickly diagnose a patient’s heart condition anywhere, anytime. Preliminary studies show that ultrasound can identify cardiac conditions missed by conventional exams conducted by stethoscope.