Kirill Larin, assistant professor of biomedical engineering and mechanical engineering, is using a 400,000 dollars fund from the U.S. Navy to develop the first optical non-invasive tool for testing those most likely to suffer from decompression sickness, such as scuba divers, submariners and airplane pilots.
"Most of the time, decompression sickness isn't addressed until the person starts showing clinical symptoms. It would be better, of course, to treat the problem before the symptoms appear. That would allow individuals to take the appropriate medical actions to reduce the side effects of decompression sickness," Larin said.
The optical device can locate the presence of nitrogen gas - or microbubbles - in blood and tissues, which can restrict the flow of blood throughout the body and cause damage.
Larin and Dr. Bruce Butler of the UT Health Science Center in Houston are together developing the tool, which works much like an ultrasound machine.
Instead of getting readings using sound waves, however, Larin's device uses light waves in the form of lasers that bounce back when they encounter resistance, thereby providing a high-resolution image.
The Navy could eventually use this technology on all divers or pilots returning to the surface. By shining the laser on one of these individuals, it would provide an image that would reveal the presence of any microbubbles in the blood or tissue - all in a matter of seconds.
If microbubbles are found, then medical steps, such as time in a decompression chamber, could be taken before the symptoms appear.
An early version of the tool has been able to locate microbubbles as small as six micrometers, or six thousandths of a millimeter. Most microbubbles are between five and 15 micrometers, about the size of a red blood cell.
The device also could be used at the International Space Station, where individuals moving from a ship to the station have suffered from the effects of decompression sickness. With continued research, everyone from highly trained naval divers and pilots, to astronauts and seaside vacationers could benefit.