Undergrads Scott Beaupré, Alexandra Hauser, Bonnie Ha and Nick Pizzacalla have developed the prototype for an affordable, portable ultrasound tool that can detect carotid plaque before it leads to stroke.

Engineering Science

Capstone project targets stroke alert

June 09, 2015

It’s known as a silent killer. Carotid artery disease, caused by a build-up of plaque in the arteries that carry oxygen-rich blood to the brain, often shows no symptoms. Yet it causes 30 to 50 per cent of strokes—the third leading cause of death in Canada.

Armed with this knowledge, engineering science undergraduates Nick Pizzacalla and Alexandra Hauser—who convocate on June 9—teamed up with fellow engineering science student Bonnie Ha and applied physics student Scott Beaupré. Their mission: to develop an affordable, portable ultrasound tool that detects carotid plaque before it leads to stroke.

The result is CARE, an acronym for Carotid Artery Realtime Echoes. The tool transmits high-frequency sound pulses into the body that echo back to the probe. An electronic device—smartphone, tablet or computer—captures these reflections to form a two-dimensional image of the artery, including any lurking plaque deposits.

CARE is currently at the prototype stage.

“We are very close to identifying the walls of the carotid artery and any obstructions by the height and shape of the signal,” says Pizzacalla.

“It was a proud moment when we successfully produced and received a signal, displaying it on the oscilloscope.”

Identified in its early stages, carotid artery disease can be treated with medicine, medical procedures or life-style changes.

Initially created for an engineering-science capstone project, the students plan to continue the prototype development this summer. They hope CARE might one day be widely available in doctors’ clinics and elder-care homes.

“The main goal is to develop a cheaper alternative to a full ultrasound system, which can range anywhere from $20,000 to $100,000,” says Hauser.  “Due to the unaffordability, there are usually very few of them outside hospitals.”

The project put the team’s technical skills to the test: “None of us are in the biomedical engineering stream at SFU, so much of the information on ultrasound technology was new to us,” says Pizzacalla. 

But it also challenged them to look inside themselves for inspiration—sometimes literally.

Pizzacalla explains: “We had to learn how to use an existing ultrasound machine, so now we’re even capable of giving ourselves ultrasound tests and exporting the results to a computer for analysis.”

The project sparked an interest in biomedical engineering for Hauser, who now hopes to pursue a career in biomedical imaging after graduation. Pizzacalla plans to work as an electrical-engineer-in-training and eventually own a company.