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Nuclear Weapons Equipment May Be Used in Breast Cancer Detection

October 6, 1993

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Machinery designed to detect and analyze flaws in nuclear warheads and in experimental laser weapons soon may be used to provide women better early detection of breast cancer.

The Energy Department signed an agreement today for a $3.28 million joint venture between the department’s Lawrence Livermore Laboratory and a Colorado manufacturer of X-ray equipment to develop improved ″digital″ detection technology for breast cancer.

Fischer Imaging Corp. of Denver, a leading manufacturer of diagnostic X-ray machinery, will finance $2.4 million, while the government will contribute $880,000, according to the agreement.

The digital technology will allow clearer images for medical technicians and lead to earlier and more precise detection of cancers in the breast, cancer experts said.

Dr. Faina Shtern, chairman of diagnostic imaging at the National Cancer Institute, said the new technology, once it is widely used, will represent ″a real revolution″ in the ability analyze breast X-ray images and to detect early cancers.

While a prototype of commercial equipment may be ready for government review in about a year, industry and government officials acknowledged at a news conference that it may take as long a decade for the new technology to widely replace the 12,000 current X-ray machines now in use.

But Morgan Nields, chairman of Fischer Imaging, said, the equipment is likely to be available at some hospitals much earlier. ″We think it will be compelling for major medical institutions to take this technology as soon as they can get it,″ said Nields.

He expects the new equipment to cost two to three times as much as most conventional X-ray machinery - but be cheaper to operate.

The digital technology has been used for years at government weapons laboratories such as Lawrence Livermore in California to check for possible flaws in components of nuclear weapons, laser weapons and other defense- related hardware.

But some of the government’s machinery costs several million dollars, compared with roughly $75,000 for conventional X-ray equipment used in hospitals.

The joint venture is the latest in an attempt to convert scientific expertise at government weapons laboratories into commercial and civilian uses. Last week, President Clinton announced a plan for a joint research and development effort involving the government laboratories and the domestic auto industry to try to develop a cleaner, more fuel efficient car.

″Our goal would be that we have this product ready for FDA (Food and Drug Administration) approval in 1994,″ Nields said in an interview Tuesday.

Clint Logan, the mammography project leader at Lawrence Livermore, said it might take a bit longer, perhaps three years to resolve technical problems and two more years to obtain FDA approval.

The digital equipment would provide better image quality, require less radiation dose, allow detection of smaller tumors and detect early signs of a problem in younger women whose breast tissue is more dense, which makes conventional X-ray machinery less reliable, said Nields.

Nields said the supercomputers available at Livermore, one of the leading government research facilities, also will allow researchers to find the optimum wave length to achieve the best image at the lowest dose levels, thereby reducing X-ray radiation exposure to patients.

Fischer Imaging hopes to develop a digital version that costs ″two to three times″ what conventional X-ray equipment costs. Nields said such a price would be commercially competitive since the digital equipment is cheaper to operate, provides cheaper storage and produces less waste.

Digital mammography uses electronic radiation detectors to capture the image created by X-rays passing through the breast. A converter changes the X- ray energy to visible light. While a conventional X-ray machine captures the images on film, the digital system allows it to be viewed directly on electronic displays similar to a home computer.

Nields said that because the image is much clearer, with greater contrast, it will allow for better detection with fewer X-rays actually being taken and detect smaller tumors.

Breast cancer claims the lives of an estimated 46,000 women in the United States each year. While X-ray imaging, along with physical examinations, is considered the most effective means of early detection, health experts estimate that a fifth of mammograms, using current conventional technology, fail to detect cancers that are present.

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