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Jeff Stringer, MD (Credit: Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

UNC-Chapel Hill has received a $17 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to continue groundbreaking work in artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled obstetric ultrasound.

CHAPEL HILL, NC – The new award will support an interdisciplinary team from the UNC School of Medicine and Gillings School of Global Public Health, with collaborators in Zambia, Kenya, and Pakistan, to continue efforts to extend access to obstetric ultrasound through AI-assisted image acquisition and interpretation. A recent landmark paper published by the researchers reported a deep-learning AI model that can estimate fetal gestational age from blindly-obtained ultrasound sweeps obtained by novice users on low-cost, battery-powered devices. The AI model performs as well as trained sonographers using expensive cart-based machines.

Jeffrey Stringer, MD, professor of obstetrics and gynecology and associate director for research at UNC’s Institute for Global Health and Infectious Diseases, will lead the research team. “Obstetric ultrasound is essential to good obstetric care and should be available to all women worldwide, not just those who are fortunate enough to live in a rich country,” said Dr. Stringer. “We are aiming to democratize access to obstetric ultrasound, whether that be in a developing country like Zambia or in rural North Carolina.”

The new support from the Gates Foundation will fund development of additional features in the AI models with the goal of creating a suite of tools that can be incorporated into a low-cost device. The award will also encourage other academic groups and private entities to create new ultrasound solutions by generating special “annotated” image datasets that can be used to develop AI algorithms.

According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 300,000 women and 3 million babies die each year during childbirth or shortly thereafter, due to environmental and structural factors, underlying infectious disease burden, nutritional factors, and underperforming health systems. In the U.S., more than 12 million obstetric ultrasound scans are performed each year with the average pregnant woman receiving three to four ultrasounds during pregnancy (or more, with complicated pregnancies). Yet, in under-resourced settings, the high cost for equipment and the need for trained sonographers to perform scans means that very few women have access to ultrasound. While WHO recommends an ultrasound scan for all pregnancies before 24 weeks’ gestation, in many settings, as few as 5% of pregnant women receive any ultrasound care.

Media Contact

Kim Morris, UNC Institute for Global Health and Infectious Diseases.