How the Hubble Space Telescope Helped the Fight Against Breast Cancer

NASA, Getty Images
NASA, Getty Images

The beauty of scientific research is that scientists never really know where a particular development might lead. Research on Gila monster venom has led to the invention of medication that helps manage type 2 diabetes, and enzymes discovered in the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park are now widely used for DNA replication, a technique used by forensic scientists to analyze crime scenes.

The same rule of thumb applies to NASA scientists, whose work has found dozens of applications outside of space exploration—especially in medicine.

Take the Hubble Space Telescope. Launched in 1990, the Hubble has graced us with stunning, intimate photographs of our solar system. But it wasn't always that way—when the telescope was launched, the first images beamed back to earth were awfully fuzzy. The image processing techniques NASA created to solve this problem not only sharpened Hubble's photos, but also had an unexpected benefit: Making mammograms more accurate.

As NASA reports, "When applied to mammograms, software techniques developed to increase the dynamic range and spatial resolution of Hubble's initially blurry images allowed doctors to spot smaller calcifications than they could before, leading to earlier detection and treatment."

That's because the Hubble Space Telescope contains a technology called Charge-Coupled Devices, or CCDs, which are basically electron-trapping gizmos capable of digitizing beams of light. Today, CCDs allow "doctors to analyze the tissue by stereotactic biopsy, which requires a needle rather than surgery," NASA says [PDF]. Back in 1994, NASA predicted that this advancement could reduce national health care costs by approximately $1 billion every year.

And that's just one of the tools NASA has developed that's now being used to fight breast cancer. When cancer researcher Dr. Susan Love was having trouble studying breast ducts—where breast cancer often originates—she turned to research coming out of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. As Rosalie Chan reports for the Daily Beast, the Jet Propulsion Lab has dedicated vast resources to avoiding the spread of earthly contaminants in space, and its research has included the development of a genomic sequencing technology that is "clean and able to analyze microscopic levels of biomass." As Dr. Love discovered, the same technology is a fantastic way to test for cancer-linked microorganisms in breast duct tissue.

A second technology developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory—the Quantum Well Infrared Photodetector, or QWIP—enables humans to see invisible infrared light in a spectrum of colors, helping scientists discover caves on Mars and study volcanic emissions here on Earth. But it's also useful at the doctor's office: A QWIP medical sensor can detect tiny changes in the breast's blood flow—a sign of cancer—extremely early.

And as any doctor will tell you, that's huge: The earlier cancer is detected, the greater a person's chance of survival.

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Poike/iStock via Getty Images Plus
Poike/iStock via Getty Images Plus

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5 Facts About Kawasaki Disease

Ridofranz, iStock via Getty Images
Ridofranz, iStock via Getty Images

While most pediatric COVID-19 cases are mild, the disease has been tied to a serious new syndrome in kids. In recent weeks, dozens of children who tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies have exhibited symptoms like rash, fever, diarrhea, and swollen hands and feet—all signs similar to a rare condition called Kawasaki disease. Like Kawasaki disease, the mystery illness, officially known as pediatric multi-system inflammatory syndrome (PIMS), can lead to severe heart issues. In New York, three children have died from it.

Medical experts still aren’t sure how this condition develops, or how it’s related to COVID-19. Here are five things we do know about Kawasaki disease, the syndrome it resembles.

1. Symptoms of Kawasaki disease appear in phases.

When patients first contract Kawasaki disease, the most serious symptom is a high fever that lasts five days or more. Other diagnostic signs that appear in this first stage include chapped lips, bloodshot eyes, sore throat, swollen hands and feet, and a rash covering the back, limbs, belly, and groin. These symptoms are the result of inflammation in the arteries, veins, capillaries, and lymph nodes.

After experiencing a fever for about two weeks, patients may enter the second stage of the disease. This phase is characterized by diarrhea, vomiting, joint pain, and temporary hearing loss. Peeling skin on the hands and feet is another symptom, with dead skin sometimes coming off the extremities in layers.

The third phase is known as the convalescent phase, and it comes about four weeks after the fever first develops. During this period, which can last a couple of weeks, patients gradually recover and their symptoms improve.

2. Kawasaki disease can have deadly complications.

Most children who get Kawasaki disease fully recover, and recovery rates are even higher when the disease is caught early. But in some cases, the illness has dangerous effects on the cardiovascular system. The inflammation that characterizes the disease can weaken artery walls, resulting in rare cases of heart disease and heart attacks in children. Heart problems afflict about a quarter of Kawasaki disease patients who didn’t receive early treatment for the condition. Of these untreated cases, roughly 2 to 3 percent are fatal.

3. Kawasaki disease is uncommon.

Kawasaki disease is rare, effecting roughly 4200 children in the U.S. annually. The syndrome is almost exclusive to kids, with most cases occurring in patients younger than 5 years old. It’s 1.5 times more common in boys, so sex may factor into who gets it. Ethnicity is another possible component: Kawasaki disease rates are 10 to 20 times higher in East Asian countries like Korea and Japan than in the U.S.

4. Kawasaki disease is often treated with an over-the-counter drug.

One of the primary treatments for Kawasaki disease is aspirin. The anti-inflammatory drug can help relieve pain, reduce fever, and prevent blood clots in kids with the condition. Aspirin shouldn’t be taken by children for other types of fever or pain, though, due to the risk of a serious condition called Reye's syndrome. Kawasaki disease is the rare instance when aspirin is given to kids, and even in these cases, it should only be taken under the supervision of a doctor.

The other main treatment for the disease is intravenous immunoglobulin, or IVIG. Immunoglobulin is a solution of antibodies from healthy donors that helps boost the patient's immune system to fight disease. It’s administered through the patient’s vein, and if given early enough, it can reduce symptoms within 36 hours.

5. COVID-19 may trigger Kawasaki disease, but it's too soon to tell.

Doctors are unclear on what causes Kawasaki disease. One theory is that antigens found in some viruses can trigger a hyper-inflammatory response in children who are genetically susceptible. This is similar to what's being observed in the new pediatric multi-system inflammatory syndrome, which is possibly related to COVID-19. "We think patients were exposed to the SARS-CoV-2 virus, they may or may not have had some symptoms, and later on there was a delayed reaction," Michael Portman, pediatric cardiologist and director of the Kawasaki Disease Clinic at Seattle Children’s, says of the recent PIMS cases. "There was a hyper-inflammatory response launched by the body against the viral antigen, so that fits with the main hypothesis for Kawasaki disease."

More research still needs to be done to understand the relationship between PIMS and COVID-19. "It's a little bit early to make a direct link, but it seems plausible that the new coronavirus does trigger an immune response that could result in Kawasaki disease, or a different spectrum of the disease, or even a separate disease that we're calling PIMS," Portman tells Mental Floss.

It's also too early to say definitively that PIMS and Kawasaki disease are the same thing, but to experts who have studied the latter, the new syndrome looks very familiar. "It is very difficult to separate the two," Portman says. "They are very, very similar, and it's going to take quite a bit of research to determine if they're different."