A new, painless, non-invasive procedure that harnesses ultrasound technology to reposition kidney stones, in an effort to offer the sufferer quick relief, will undergo testing in emergency patients. The development and assessment of the new technology are led by University of Washington and UW Medicine, in collaboration with other universities and agencies.

Kidney Stones

Kidney stones are an increasingly common condition that affects 1 in 11 Americans during their lifetime. The condition is even more frequently encountered in astronauts during space missions. The hope is that the new technology could benefit astronauts as well as Earth-side patients.

Funding has been provided by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the National Institutes of Health's National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases and the Department of Defense's Surgical Research Institute.

Ultrasound Device

After the invention of an ultrasound device to better detect kidney stones, engineers from the Applied Physics Laboratory at the University of Washington observed that they could accurately reposition small objects with ultrasound on a laboratory table.

In conjunction with partners in the UW School of Medicine urology, emergency medicine, and radiology departments, the researchers went on to advance the technology and to use the same waves from a hand-held ultrasound transducer to re-locate kidney stones in preliminary tests.

Kidney stones become symptomatic if they enter the urinary tract, have trouble passing, and become stuck where they can cause debilitating pain. Also, obstruction of urine flow causes a backup. This can result in swelling of the kidney, and cramping in the ureter, thereby setting the stage for infection or further kidney damage.

Space Travel

Because space travel makes astronauts prone to kidney stones due, in part to bone demineralization from weightlessness, they are at increased risk.  They hope that we will be able to move stones back into patients' kidneys. This could make our patients more comfortable and allow them to deal with the kidney stone on their terms, not on the store's terms.

An additional benefit of repositioning kidney stones is potentially avoiding unnecessary pain medications such as opioids for patients discharged from their kidney stone emergency. They anticipate being able to reposition an acute stone to relieve pressure on the kidney. This would have the benefit of relieving suffering as well as avoiding emergent urologic intervention.

Astronauts In Space

Their clinical research team will test a protocol that might be carried out safely and effectively during a space mission by on-board medical responders.  For astronauts in space, this option could save a life and allow astronauts to complete urgent mission responsibilities without having to turn the space shuttle around – a significant consideration.

The current rendition of the ultrasound kidney stone push technology has been coined the flexible ultrasound system, or FUS, and is about the size of a lecture podium on wheels. It has a built-in imaging screen and a hand-operated device for delivering the waves through the surface of the body.

Ultrasound System

If trials on Earth are successful, NASA would likely plan to fly the ultrasound system in future missions, including longer duration human explorations of Mars.