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NASA’s Space Exploration Techniques Will Aid Cancer Research

Sep 21, 2016 04:37 AM EDT
Endeavour Orbits Earth Docked To International Space Station
NASA’s machine learning techniques to identify similarities among galaxies, stars and planets will be applied by medical professionals into advanced cancer research.
(Photo : Paolo Nespoli - ESA/NASA via Getty Images)

NASA's space research techniques have inspired advanced cancer research. On Sept. 6, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has renewed its research partnership with the National Cancer Institute (NCI), extending the development of data science supporting cancer research until 2021.

JPL scientists have been using complex machine learning algorithms to "read" data from NASA's spacecraft and distribute them to scientists across the globe. This big data technique allows scientists to identify similarities among galaxies, stars and planets that might be overlooked, NASA officials said.

For the past 15 years, these techniques have been revolutionizing biomedical research. Using similar methods, medical professionals are able to analyze cancer biomarkers, as well as common chemical or genetic signatures related to specific cancers, which could lead to early cancer detection.

The NCI-supported Early Detection Research Network (EDRN) was formed to pool all research data into a single accessible network and eventually translate the collective work into techniques for early diagnosis of cancer and cancer risk by distributing their findings across the globe.

"From a NASA standpoint, there are significant opportunities to develop new data science capabilities that can support both the mission of exploring space and cancer research using common methodological approaches," Dan Crichton, head of JPL's Center for Data Science and Technology, said in a statement. "We have a great opportunity to perfect those techniques and grow JPL's data science technologies, while serving our nation."

Using JPL's data science techniques for space explorations, EDRN has already discovered six new cancer biomarkers approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), as well as nine biomarkers approved for use in Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendment laboratories.

The renewed partnership will also provide support to other NCI-funded programs, including the Consortium for Molecular and Cellular Characterization of Screen-Detected Lesions and the Informatics Technology for Cancer Research Initiative.

The partnership also addressed accessibility problems. Research centers all over the country had large numbers of specimens of biomarkers, but medical data such as patient's age, type of cancer and other characteristics were not labeled uniformly, so they could not be studied as a whole.

The next steps include image recognition technology that will help EDRN archive images of cancer specimens. These images could be analyzed in searching for early signs of cancer based on the patient's age, ethnic background and other demographics--much like how the system searches through images of star clusters.

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