Feds aid Fischer's goal of digital mammography
Feds aid Fischer's goal of digital mammography
It's a long way from Star Wars to the war on breast cancer, but not too far for mammography vendor Fischer Imaging. The Denver company this month signed an agreement with the Department of Energy to develop a full-field-of-view digital mammography unit. The system will use technology developed to test nuclear weapons in the Strategic Defense Initiative program.
Fischer chairman and CEO Morgan Nields appeared with Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and other congressional representatives at a news conference Oct. 6 in Washington, DC, to announce the agreement. The briefing shed new light on Fischer's effort to develop a diagnostic digital mammography system capable of imaging the entire breast (SCAN 10/6/93).
Under the terms of the agreement, Fischer will team with engineers from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, CA. During the SDI program, the laboratory developed digital x-ray technology for nondestructive testing of nuclear-powered antiballistic missile lasers. When the laser experiments were terminated as SDI research slowed, the laboratory began to explore new applications for its technology, according to mammography project manager Clint Logan of Livermore Laboratory.
"The x-ray attenuation properties of the material (we were working with) were similar to soft tissue," Logan said. "By the time the program began to wind down, we were moving in the same direction as digital mammography; that is, getting rid of film and doing (testing) with electronic detection."
The agreement gives Livermore $880,000 in DOE funding to continue research on digital mammography. Fischer has committed $900,000 of its own R&D money, which will be spent on related research at its laboratories. Fischer will also spend at least $1.5 million for clinical trials and expenses related to bringing a product to market, making the entire package worth $3.28 million.
The technology the two will develop is similar to Fischer's MammoVision digital spot mammography device, which has a 50 x 50-mm field-of-view. MammoVision uses a fiber-optic reducer bonded to a charge-coupled device. Fischer and Livermore Laboratory engineers will design a device using multiple fiber-optic reducers and CCDs that will achieve an image matrix of 4000 x 5000 pixels, enough for full-field-of-view digital mammography, Logan said.
Livermore Laboratory engineers also plan to improve x-ray tube technology to create a unit better able to image dense breasts. Molybdenum anode tubes have serious limitations when imaging dense breasts, Logan said. The Fischer-Livermore system would use an alternative to molybdenum, such as tungsten anode tubes or tube anodes made from elements with atomic numbers higher than molybdenum. Ideally, users will be able to tune the x-ray source to match the tissue characteristics of the breasts being screened.
The result will be a mammography unit with better image quality than standard film-screen systems, with all the benefits of digital, Logan said.
"This system is going to be new from the ground up with the exception of the (x-ray generator)," Logan said. "The performance is going to look so good compared to film-screen that it will revolutionize this business."
The Fischer-Livermore Laboratory partnership is a good example of the kind of agreements the government is promoting to speed the conversion of defense technology to civilian uses. These partnerships, known as cooperative research and development agreements (CRADA), have become more profitable for private industry because under CRADA, companies can gain exclusive access to government-developed technology by paying licensing royalties.
Fischer competitor Lorad also found a friend with brain power in its drive to develop a full-view digital mammography system. Lorad is working with engineers from parent company ThermoTrex, the research arm of high-technology conglomerate Thermo Electron (SCAN 9/8/93).
Full-view digital mammography could be developed without access to a specialized research facility like ThermoTrex or Livermore Laboratory, said Roberto A. Cascella, Fischer president and COO. But having such access helps speed up the process.
"For every dollar that Fischer is spending, we're almost getting a double bang for our buck by incorporating the minds at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory," Cascella said. "It certainly is a help to smaller businesses to have the government step in and take a share of these development costs."
Fischer expects to show images from a full-view digital mammography system at this year's Radiological Society of North America meeting. A product could be two to three years from market, Cascella said.