From Rockets to Radiology: How NASA Boosts Cancer Research

Andrew D. Smith
Published: Wednesday, Apr 27, 2011

NASA Boosts Cancer Research The technology that enables astronomers to detect eversmaller objects across evergreater distances through ever-heavier interference has found a ready audience among researchers dreaming of adapting it for cancer detection.

A computer that “looks” at many different photographs will typically “see” each as the exact same thing—abstract art. The colored pixels that evoke 3-dimensional (3D) reality in human imagination never strike a hyper-rational machine as anything but what they really are: digitally stored ones and zeros. James C. Tilton, PhD, first considered this problem more than a quarter-century ago and decided to help solve it by writing software that would allow computers to compare pixels and guess which ones went together. Such a process, at its simplest, now allows programs like Photoshop to spot individual objects, but Tilton wanted to go further.

Since then, working largely alone in his office at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, the computer engineer has devised a still-evolving program that analyzes photo pixels and groups them into related segments. Scientists have since used Tilton’s software to improve the accuracy of ice and snow maps and fi nd archaeological ruins under dense jungle. Now they’re testing its ability to detect breast cancer. “I was so focused on using this to analyze satellite photos that I never considered medical applications,” Tilton said. “Then I heard the idea, and it just made perfect sense. It’s largely the same task.”

James C. Tilton, a NASA computer engineer
James C. Tilton, a NASA computer engineer, develops imaging software.

Exploring Space. Fighting Cancer.

While those challenges might seem at first glance to be worlds apart, the technology that enables astronomers to detect ever-smaller objects across ever-greater distances through ever-heavier interference has found a ready audience among researchers dreaming of adapting it for cancer detection.

Such dreams have sent a steady stream of technology from the rocket ship to the cancer clinic over the decades. While none of NASA’s inventions has revolutionized oncology, many have found lasting homes at hospitals. And new products always await testing.

“NASA does so much basic research that its ideas affect everything from the design of knee braces to the efficient scheduling of shift workers,” said Daniel Lockney, a spokesman for the Office of the Chief Technologist at NASA. “Medical research is not something that NASA sets out to do, but technology developed here has certainly found medical applications, particularly in imaging.”

Through the Astronomy Looking Glass

The link between astronomy and medical imaging goes way back. Historians believe that one man, the German eyeglass maker Hans Lippershey, may well have invented both the telescope and the microscope in the late 1500s.

NASA researchers didn’t invent any major medical imaging devices, but their work has improved many existing devices, a review of agency reports indicates.

When mammography first became popular in the late 1960s, doctors took several exposures of each breast to guarantee good images. NASA scientists helped to change that when they figured out that a solar cell, placed directly under x-ray film, could indicate when that film had received just enough radiation.

This discovery helped researchers elsewhere devise practical means for single-exposure mammography, an improvement that saved women time, money, discomfort, and, most importantly, contact with radiation.

Astronomers also helped develop some of the sensor technology that took medical imaging from film to computers, a jump that has boosted image quality and allowed specialists in one part of the world to diagnose patients in another.

The digital transition also made it theoretically possible for machines to help people interpret medical images. A computer that somehow used software to overcome its visual handicaps could analyze far more image data, far more exactly, than any human being ever could.

Entrepreneur Seeks Imaging Advance

With this dream in mind, some would-be medical revolutionaries began writing software from scratch.

Fitz G. Walker Jr, on the other hand, stumbled accidentally across Tilton’s software at one of NASA’s technology licensing fairs.

The program’s ability to accurately distinguish among different geological features, even those of almost identical coloring, suggested a program that could also extract huge amounts of data from the indistinct silver monotone of a typical mammogram.

"Medical research is not something that NASA sets out to do, but technology developed here has certainly found medical applications, particularly in imaging."
–Daniel Lockney, NASA
Walker, an entrepreneur who has worked in several computer-related occupations, gained exclusive rights to the patented technology through NASA’s Innovative Partnerships Program in 2003, founded a company called Bartron Medical Imaging Inc in Largo, Maryland, and started customizing the software for medicine.

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