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.

10 Facts About High Blood Pressure

iStock.com/stockvisual
iStock.com/stockvisual

People with high blood pressure (hypertension) are at a greater risk for a host of medical issues, including heart failure and stroke. Despite the severe health threats it poses, high blood pressure often goes unnoticed or untreated by some who have it. From high blood pressure symptoms to what levels are considered normal, here are some facts about the condition.

1. High blood pressure symptoms are sometimes unnoticeable.

Blood pressure is a measurement of the force of blood moving through the circulatory system. High blood pressure, a condition in which blood is putting too much force on arteries and organs, is often called the “silent killer.” It contributes to hundreds of thousands of deaths each year, but only half of high blood pressure patients know they have it. In most cases, hypertension signs are difficult to detect, making it hard to diagnose and keep under control. Chest pain, dizziness, shortness of breath, and heart palpitations are some of the most common hypertension signs in people who do show symptoms.

2. Anxiety causes some of the same symptoms as high blood pressure.

When it comes to managing high blood pressure symptoms, mental health is as important as physical health. Anxiety can lead to sudden spikes in blood pressure, and spikes that occur often enough can inflict serious damage on the heart and blood vessels the same way chronic high blood pressures does. Stress and anxiety also make people vulnerable to the top risk factors associated with chronic hypertension, such as smoking, excessive drinking, and overeating.

3. A normal blood pressure range is lower than it used to be.

If you haven’t had your blood pressure measured in a couple years, it’s time for a check-up: In November 2017, the American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association updated its normal blood pressure guidelines. The two components that make up blood pressure are systolic pressure—the pressure in blood vessels, represented by the top number in test results—and diastolic pressure, the pressure in the heart between beats represented by the bottom number. According to the old guidelines, the threshold for normal blood pressure was 140 systolic pressure and 90 diastolic pressure, or 140/90. The new guidelines lowered that marker to 130/80. Now that the normal blood pressure range has dropped, 14 percent more people could diagnosed with hypertension in the U.S.

4. "White-coat hypertension" is real.

Not every patient who exhibits hypertension signs in the doctor’s office has high blood pressure. “White-coat hypertension” occurs when patients get nervous in a medical setting, leading to a spike in blood pressure that doesn’t necessarily reflect their true health. But this type of hypertension should be taken seriously, even if it is a product of nerves. According to one study, people with white-coat hypertension have a greater chance of developing cardiovascular disease than those with normal blood pressure levels. This may be because people with white-coat hypertension are more prone to anxiety.

5. People with high blood pressure should consume less than one teaspoon of salt per day.

One of the worst things to eat if you have hypertension is food that’s high in salt. Sodium, which makes up 40 percent of table salt (sodium chloride), promotes water retention in the body. More water means more blood volume, which puts added pressure on the heart and blood vessels. Medical experts recommend consuming no more than 2300 milligrams of sodium per day, or just over 1 teaspoon of salt. If you have high blood pressure, the American Heart Association recommends an ideal limit at 1500 milligrams of sodium a day—equal to three-quarters of a teaspoon of salt.

6. Almost half of U.S. adults have high blood pressure ...

According to the American Heart Association, more than 100 million people in the U.S. have high blood pressure—that’s nearly half of American adults. The condition is so common that even if you don’t have it now, chances are you will develop it at some point in your life. The lifetime risk in the U.S. for hypertension in 90 percent.

7. ... and black Americans are most affected.

High blood pressure affects certain groups disproportionately. Black Americans are more likely to have high blood pressure than any other group in the country, and when they develop it, it’s usually more severe. Hypertension also affects black Americans earlier in life: Three in four black people in the U.S. will develop the condition by age 55. Health experts believe that the prevalence of high blood pressure is associated with the higher rates of obesity and diabetes among the black population.

8. A female hormone may protect against high blood pressure.

High blood pressure rates are pretty similar among men and women before middle age. But once women hit menopause, their chances of developing hypertension increase: 75 percent of postmenopausal in the U.S. have high blood pressure. This may have to do something with decreased levels of estrogen—a hormone that’s been shown to boost premenopausal women’s vascular health.

9. High blood pressure can be life-threatening ...

High blood pressure doesn’t kill people directly, but it can lead to some deadly complications. Hypertension adds potentially fatal stress to vital organs like the heart, kidneys, and brain. When you have high blood pressure, your risk of heart attack, stroke, chronic heart failure, kidney disease, and even blindness all significantly go up.

10. ... but improved with medications and healthy living.

The best way to reduce your blood pressure is to change your lifestyle. Smoking, drinking too much alcohol, and eating too much salty food all increase your risk of developing hypertension, and doctors recommend avoiding these risk factors to keep blood pressure levels under control. Regular exercise and certain medications, like diuretics (to get rid of excess water in the body) and ACE inhibitors (which block an enzyme that tightens blood vessels), can also lower blood pressure.

A 92-Year-Old Colorado Man Has Donated Close to 50 Gallons of Blood

iStock.com/Moussa81
iStock.com/Moussa81

The average adult has approximately 1.2 to 1.5 gallons (10 to 12 pints) of blood in their body at any given time. If they choose to donate blood, roughly 1 pint can be taken every 56 days.

Loveland, Colorado resident Ron Reidy, 92, knows the rules pretty well. He's given blood on a regular basis for the past two to three decades and has now amassed a lifetime total of nearly 50 gallons.

According to the Colorado-based Reporter-Herald, Reidy arrived at the Loveland Police Department on Tuesday of this week to sit for a donation that would put him over the milestone, one that only 27 other donors have surpassed in the 75-year history of blood donation nonprofit Vitalant. Though an undisclosed concern during his health screening prevented him from meeting requirements and donating that day, he was still celebrated for his longstanding contribution to the state's blood banks.

Reidy initially donated blood platelets, which can be given up to 24 times annually, but switched to donating whole blood as he grew older. Reidy told the Reporter-Herald that he can't remember exactly when he began giving blood, only that it was sometime in his sixties or seventies.

It's believed that Reidy's 400 lifetime donations may have been able to assist in saving the lives of as many as three people each, meaning his blood could have been involved with as many as 1200 patients in need of a transfusion. Reidy said he plans to return to cross the 50-gallon goal line and was in good spirits, though he told the paper that a lack of other donors in the facility "pisses me off."

[h/t Reporter-Herald]

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