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Combating Breast Cancer - Research & Diagnosing Technology
Outside Earth's atmosphere and beyond low Earth orbit, space crews may be exposed to different types of potentially harmful radiation. Thus, space radiation research is an important element of NASA's Life Sciences Division's Biomedical Research and Countermeasures Program. Space radiation research focuses on understanding how different kinds of radiation encountered in space alter living tissue and on developing ways of preventing damage to healthy tissue or accelerating the repair of damaged tissue.

Image to right: NASA's researchers hope the "smart probe" will improve a doctor's ability to quickly diagnose uncertain tissue masses.

NASA - photo showing Knowledge gained through space radiation research will contribute to finding the source for possible treatments of cancer. Research and technology development sponsored by NASA's Life Sciences Division promises to improve understanding of how cancer develops and methods of detecting and perhaps even treating cancer.

Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer afflicting American women. This year, 182,000 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in the United States alone. According to the National Alliance of Breast Cancer Organizations, one in nine women today will develop the disease (compared to one in 14 in 1960). U.S. health care costs associated with breast cancer total more than $8 billion a year.

Doctors have identified some risk factors for breast cancer, but no identifiable risk factors are obvious in 70 percent of breast cancer cases. The cause of breast cancer is unknown making methods of prevention are difficult to determine. For these reasons, the best way to beat breast cancer is by early detection.

NASA researchers are developing 3D MRI's and Sonograms that will give doctors a better look at breast cancer. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) at the National Institutes of Health emphasizes the importance of mammography in its guidelines for early detection of breast cancer, especially for women who are over 40 or have a family history of breast cancer. Mammography, coupled with a clinical examination, is the best tool available for early detection, and early detection greatly improves a cancer patients chances of survival.

In July 1994, NASA and the NCI signed a memorandum of agreement to collaborate in studying the effects of radiation on human health and the mitigation of those effects. NASA researchers currently are using human mammary-tissue cells and rodent mammary-gland cells in experiments intended to improve understanding of the role of radiation in causing and curing cancer as well as the process by which cancer develops.

Digital Mammography Imaging - Clinical trials of mammography have shown that it has the potential to reduce breast cancer mortality by about 30 percent in women aged 50 and over, according to the NCI. For example, mammography is the only means of detecting the conditions known as lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS) and ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), which rarely cause breast lumps. While some doctors do not technically consider these conditions cancers, LCIS is viewed as a sign of elevated risk of breast cancer, and DCIS can progress to malignancy and spread. Again, detection as early as possible is a desirable goal.

A refinement of state-of-the-art mammography technology called digital mammography holds great promise for improving the detection of breast cancer in its early stages and thus improving patients' chances for survival. Given this potential, NASA signed an agreement with the NCI's National Digital Mammography Development Group in 1993 to identify space technologies that might improve cancer diagnosis.

Former analog mammography techniques are not sufficiently sensitive to detect small lumps against the dense background of breast tissue in young women. NASA digital imaging and sensing technologies developed for detecting extremely faint objects or signals in space may contribute toward improving existing mammography techniques and applying new digital imaging technology to mammography. One improvement option under study involves digitizing conventional X-ray mammograms for analysis by a derivation of a highly sensitive digital signal detection technique that NASA scientists originally developed to pick out faint radio signals in space from a growing blare of galactic and human-made background radio noise. Digital mammograms could be produced directly for analysis using a space technology called the charge-coupled device (CCD). Direct digital imaging methods offer the advantage of better-quality images, due to the higher contrast provided by the digital image detector compared to X-ray imagery.

Bioreactor Technology - A space biomedical research tool called the rotating-wall bioreactor, developed by NASA's Microgravity Sciences and Applications Division, may help cancer researchers learn more about how cancers develop. This bioreactor simulates microgravity conditions by means of a continuously rotating cell-culture container.

Rotation of the cell-culture vessel essentially neutralizes the effect of gravity that tends to compress cell cultures. The bioreactor enables cell cultures to grow in homogeneous distribution with little agitation. By eliminating the effect of gravity, the rotating-wall technique produces cancer-tissue cultures that more closely resemble cancerous tumors growing in the human body than do tissue cultures produced by more conventional techniques. The closer the tissue culture resembles a real cancerous growth, the more accurate the results of these culture tests will predict the effectiveness of treatments.

Researchers with NASA and the University of South Florida are collaborating on the development of three-dimensional tissue models of breast and ovarian cancers using cell cultures produced in NASA's bioreactor. They are determining if breast and ovarian cancer cell cultures produced in this bioreactor might be more useful in testing chemotherapeutic and biological anti-cancer agents than conventional cell cultures.

Future Innovations - A typical fear of women undergoing a mammogram is hearing that their results showed an unknown mass. But in the near future doctors may be able to decrease the stressful time of uncertainty before biopsy results allow doctors to diagnose whether the growth is benign or malignant.

NASA researchers in conjunction with Stanford University's School of Medicine are currently developing a "smart probe" that will someday improve diagnosis accuracy. This new tool will decrease the size of the incision and improve the accuracy in less time than current biopsy techniques. The smart probe consists of a number of tiny sensors that measure tissue stiffness, light absorption, blood flow, and oxygen depletion.

Conventional biopsies us a syringe to remove a tissue sample from a growth. Then, the sample is taken to a lab and analyzed for diagnosis. The smart probe works in a similar way. An ultrasound guides the doctor while inserting the probe. The probe pierces the mass and takes a number of measurements. A computer analyzes the data and presents it on a monitor for the doctor's diagnosis.

Since the diagnosis is instantaneous, patients may some day be able to go to a doctor and have a mammogram, biopsy, and removal of malignant tumors all in one day reducing the number of incisions and the resulting scar tissue. Though such a day is in the distant future, it is possible.

Researchers are also working on improving MRI and ultrasound technology. NASA researchers are developing three-dimensional imaging software that will enhance both MRI and ultrasounds. With a three-dimensional image, doctors can perform biopsies and surgeries more accurately, with smaller incisions. Similar MRI technology has already proven invaluable in brain surgery.

NASA's Space Biology Outreach Program - Web of Life