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Cancer Researchers Harness Power of Stars to Target Tumors

Update Date: Feb 22, 2013 12:09 PM EST

Normally, astronomers use algorithms to look into the distant stars. Now, they are applying that technology to look closer - into people's own bodies. Researchers are applying the algorithms to inspect breast cancer tumors and, if the technique is successful, could put the days of inspecting tumors under a microscope in the past.

For a long time, astronomers have used advanced computer systems in order to make educated guesses about what celestial bodies were hovering in the sky. The system also used to be a complicated one, performed with the help of a telescope, but now astronomers can easily point out indistinct objects hovering light years away. Medical News Daily reports that cancer researchers adapted these algorithms for use in the body in order to study samples from 2,000 breast cancer tumors.

"In shows that we don't cross-communicate as much as we ought to," lead researcher Raza Ali, a pathologist from Cancer Research United Kingdom's Cambridge Institute, said to Reuters.

The algorithm was adapted in order to determine how aggressive certain tumors are. Currently, that process is dependent on the use of skilled pathologists to notice subtle differences in tumor stains. According to Reuters, that process takes a week. Through the use of the algorithms, the processs can be cut down to a day.

The algorithms were tested, using three proteins as targets: ER, BCL2 and HER2. These proteins have previously been linked to aggressive cancers. Each of the 2,000 samples were regarded using two methods: the traditional microscopic way, and the computer algorithm. The researchers found that the algorithm was as accurate as the manual system, with the two methods being in sync a whopping 96 percent of the time.

"We've exploited the natural overlap between the techniques astronomers use to [analyze] deep sky images from the largest telescopes and the need to pinpoint subtle differences in the staining of [tumor] samples down the microscope," Ali said in a statement. "The results have been even better than we'd hoped...We're now planning a larger international study involving samples from more than 20,000 breast cancer patients to further refine our strategy."

The study was published in the British Journal of Cancer.

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