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Using Gamma-Ray Astronomy To Find Cancer

Oct 17, 13 Using Gamma-Ray Astronomy To Find Cancer

My primary field of research is in very high-energy astrophysics, specifically using gamma-ray telescopes to study exotic objects in the Universe, such as neutron stars and black holes. I am often asked what the application of this work is. My usual response is “not much.” But an emerging medical field, led by Dr. Deborah Rhodes and others, is relying on developments made by physicists with no medical training at all.

Using gamma-rays for medical purposes has been around for decades, usually for cardiac studies. However, the detectors are bulky and do not form around small parts of the body very well. As a result the detectors were poor at imaging the cancer when the tumors were small. This is critical because if found when less than one centimeter, the survival rate for breast cancer exceeds 90 percent.

However, gamma-rays have a distinct advantage over x-ray mammography in that breast density is not an issue. So, if gamma-ray detectors could be scaled down to a smaller size, allowing them to encase the breast, imaging quality could significantly be improved.

The problem is that, according to Deborah Rhodes, “the only time a physician and physicist get together is when the physicist gets sick. Physicians have all kinds of problems that they don’t realize have solutions. And physicists have all kinds of solutions for things that they don’t realize are problems.”

As it turns out, the world of physics has been advancing gamma-ray detection technology significantly over the last several decades. Since these technologies have been developed with pure research (such as astrophysics and particle physics) in mind, the world of medical imaging has been slow to catch up.

Almost by accident, Dr. Rhodes was able to team up with a group of physicists and engineers, and have created a new mammography machine they call Molecular Breast Imaging (MBI), which uses small gamma-ray detectors developed for use in astrophysics research. In 2004, this machine was used to study 1,000 women with dense breast tissue. While traditional mammography found only 25 percent of breast cancers, MBI found 83 percent. And instances where both methods were used the hit rate was 92 percent.

While considerable more study is needed, the initial results are telling. The system is more accurate than X-ray mammography, significantly cheaper than an MRI, and has the potential to save thousands of lives. And it was developed thanks to research designed to study the stars.

Check out this TED talk by Dr. Deborah Rhodes to hear more about this technology and the impact it could have on breast cancer screenings in the future.

Image Credit: Thinkstock

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About 

John P. Millis, Ph.D., is professor of physics and astronomy at Anderson University, in Anderson Indiana. He teaches a wide variety of courses while maintaining an active research program in high energy astrophysics.

His research focus is on pulsars, pulsar wind nebulae, and supernova remnants. Using the VERITAS gamma-ray observatory in southern Arizona, he studies the very high energy radiation from these dynamic sources to extract information about their formation and emission mechanisms. Dr. John received his B.S. in physics at Purdue University and remained there for the completion of his Ph.D., where he focused on High Energy Astrophysics. When not teaching or writing about physics and space, Dr. John enjoys spending time with his family, tickling the keys on his piano and playing a wide variety of sports.

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