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October 1993 

Saving Burn Victims' Pain and Lives

NASA's air and spacecraft flaw-detecting technology now saving the lives and suffering of burn victims.

Each year about two million Americans suffer serious burns. A large number of them require hospital treatment and 10,000-12,000 die from their injuries. Among those hospitalized, some 70,000 people require intensive care, and the cost of such treatment runs several 100 million dollars a year. The application of NASA ultrasound technology, originally developed to detect microscopic flaws in aircraft and spacecraft materials, has provided an advanced diagnostic instrument that makes it possible to immediately assess burn damage-knowledge that permits improved patient treatment and may even save lives in serious burn cases. The Supra Scanner is the first clinically tested, commercially available product of its kind. It also helps diagnose other skin conditions and disorders, including cancer.


The depth of a burn is the critical factor in the diagnosis and treatment of second and third degree burns. The most common treatment is to allow the natural sloughing of burn-caused dead tissue, and then to close the resulting wounds with skin grafts. Effective treatment, therefore, depends upon early recognition of the extent of dead tissue and its removal, by chemical or surgical means, to minimize risk of infection and speed healing. The key is accurate information about the depth of the burn. Previous methods to assess bulk depth were subjective and, thus, prone to error.

Supra Scanner measures depth of patient burn
Dr. Anthony Marmarou of the Medical College of Virginia uses the Supra Scanner to measure the depth of a patient's burn, a key factor in diagnosis and treatment.


To meet the need for precise determination of burn depth, a prototype instrument was developed capable of determining the level where burned tissue ends and healthy tissue begins. This is possible because, when skin is burned, a protein (collagen) that makes up approximately 40 percent of skin becomes more dense. The technique behind the Supra Scanner involves directing ultrasonic waves at the burned area. The difference in density between damaged and healthy tissue causes sound waves to reflect at the point of interface.


The Supra Scanner was granted Food and Drug Administration approval in December 1990. The instrument uses the NASA depth measurement technology by combining a scanning transducer and computer in a single instrument that may be used at a patient's bedside. The patented system produces high resolution color images of human tissue, generates cross-sectional images of the skin and provides information regarding skin surface and subsurface features.


The Supra Scanner contains several exclusive technical features such as activation by voice, a display range of 256 colors, and the NASA depth measurement technology. The standard ability of the Scanner is to "see" up to 37 millimeters (1.48 inches) beneath the surface of the skin. With an upgrade, this ability increases 60 millimeters (2.4 inches).


In operation, the transducer is placed on the ailing or injured skin area. The scan obtained is transferred to the monitor screen where it is read by doctors or medical technicians. The instrument then prints a copy of the scan for documentation and referral purposes.

Jack Canwell (left) & William Gregory with scanner

Here are Westminster chairman Jack Canwell (left) and William Gregory, president of Westminster Technology Group, Inc., producer of the Supra Scanner.


The Supra Scanner has additional applicability in diagnosis of skin cancer and other skin disorders, plastic surgery and diagnosis of lymphatic disorders.


This new health care product is the result of Langley's Technology Utilization (TU) Program. In 1983, Langley initiated an applications engineering project through its TU Program that would meet the need to determine burn depths. This process used NASA expertise to redesign and re-engineer existing technology that detected flaws in air and space craft materials.


The Langley project was spearheaded by Dr. John H. Cantrell and Dr. William P. Yost, both physicists in Langley's Nondestructive Measurement Science Branch, which conducts research on ultrasonic and other techniques for evaluating quality and fatigue of aerospace materials. Other organizations cooperating on the project include Medical College of Virginia (MCV), Richmond, Va.; the University of Aberdeen, Scotland; and the NASA Technology Applications Team, Research Triangle Institute (RTI), North Carolina, which coordinated the project and directed the commercialization of the technology.

The benefits to mankind from aerospace technology are becoming more and more commonplace - thanks to scientists involved in NASA research programs and private companies that transfer aeronautics and space technology into products and services for everyday living.



The Supra Scanner presently has three models:

  • A cart-mounted unit for hospitals and clinics
  • A lap-top size for doctor's offices, nursing homes, and home care facilities
  • A desk-top model to be carried in a shoulder bag for emergency and home use

High-frequency ultrasound supra scanner
This is a high-frequency Ultrasound Supra Scanner for the diagnosis of skin conditions and disorders. It provides quick, accurate information to help doctors make better decisions and save lives.

One of the Congressionally mandated responsibilities of NASA is to promote economic and productivity benefits to the Nation by encouraging the transfer of aerospace-generated technology to the public domain. NASA meets this objective through its Technology Utilization Program, which provides the link between the developers of aerospace technology and those either in the public or private sectors who might be able to productively employ the technology.

A Technology Utilization applications engineering project is considered successful when the technology developed under the project is used or is manufactured for the market. The Supra Scanner is one of these successes.

For more information, check out NASA Langley's Technology Application Group (TAG) Homepage.