In an unlikely tie-up, astronomers and cancer researchers have joined forces to study breast tumors using image analysis software originally developed to explore the distant stars.
The automated system offers a speedy way to test if tumors are aggressive and may mean pathologists one day no longer have to peer down a microscope to spot subtle differences in tissue samples.
Scientists at the University of Cambridge said on Wednesday that astronomical algorithms, or problem-solving procedures, adapted to biology had proved much faster and just as accurate as traditional tumor analysis procedures.
Astronomers have long used sophisticated computer systems to help pick out indistinct objects in the night sky, and the software used by the Cambridge team first developed to help spot planets that might harbor life outside our solar system.
But such star-gazing skills have gone largely unnoticed in biomedical field, at least until now.
"In shows that we don't cross-communicate as much as we ought to," said lead researcher Raza Ali, a pathologist from Cancer Research UK's Cambridge Institute.
Ali and colleagues studied just over 2,000 tumor samples and found the astronomical algorithm system could process them in a day, compared to the week they would have taken to analyze manually.
They now plan a larger international study involving samples from more than 20,000 breast cancer patients to refine the approach.
Studying tumor samples is a key part of breast cancer treatment since differences can show whether or not a tumor expresses a certain protein. A "positive" result means a patient may be suitable for a targeted drug like Roche's Herceptin.
Some diagnostics companies are already looking at other ways to automate the analysis of tumor samples but Ali said this was the first example of exploiting know-how adapted from astronomy.
The team of Cambridge cancer researchers and astronomers, who published their findings in the British Journal of Cancer, have placed all their algorithms and images in the public domain in the hope of encouraging further collaboration.
Experts believe that in general, such chemicals can be absorbed into drinks and food from the containers they come in.
COMPONENTS NOT IDENTIFIED
The team, created by a 17-year-old chemical management body called the IOMC working with a range of U.N. agencies, said a key problem was that manufacturers of consumer products did not identify many of their chemical components.
Consequently, the researchers said, they had only been able to look at "the tip of the iceberg". Disease risk from the use of EDCs - or what could be even more dangerous a combination of them - "may be significantly underestimated."
Using studies of the effect of the chemicals on humans and animals, the team added, a link to EDCs could be suspected in breast and prostate cancer, diabetes, infertility, asthma, obesity, strokes, and Alzheimer and Parkinson's diseases.
Babies exposed to EDCs in the womb or in puberty, these studies suggested, were especially vulnerable to developing these diseases in later life as well as behavioral and learning problems like dyslexia as children.
In many countries, these disorders affected 5-10 percent of babies born, while autism was now recorded at a rate of one percent. Childhood leukemia and brain cancer is also on the rise, according to the report.
"All of these complex non-communicable diseases have both a genetic and an environmental component," it said.
"Since the increases in incidence and prevalence cannot be due solely to genetics, it is important to focus on understanding the contribution of the environment to these chronic disease trends in humans."
The researchers said their report had been based largely on studies in the developed world. But the size of the problem in developing countries had yet to be adequately assessed due to a lack of data from Africa, Asia and Latin America.
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