By taking the digital-imaging processes used to inspect airplanes and
applying it to the human body, two Rowan University engineering students
have come up with a computer program that could speed up the detection
of breast cancer. The software analyzes digital mammograms and automatically
determines the percentage of breast density– an important component
in diagnosing potential disease.
Shreekanth Mandayam, an associate professor in Rowan's department
of electrical and computer engineering, knew that researchers at Fox
Chase Cancer Center needed a quick way to process mammograms as part
of a study on the radiodensity of breast tissue. Mandayam selected electrical
and computer-engineering students Lyndsay Burd and Richard Eckert to
develop a computer program that analyzes mammograms.
The students work with Fox Chase epidemiologist Marilyn Tseng, who
studies the factors that effect breast density. Women with 60 to 75
percent radiodense breast tissue have six times the risk of developing
breast cancer. Heredity, in comparison, only doubles the risk. Normally,
a trained radiologist would carefully look over each mammogram to determine
the amount of radiodense tissue. But by using the new program, the students
can speed up the analysis and eliminate sources of human error.
To do the analysis, Burd first scans the mammograms. Then, using the
binary template masks Eckert helped develop over the past year, the
computer distinguishes between the outside film region and the inside
breast tissue region of the mammogram. Finally, the program applies
an algorithm to the breast tissue region and the computer instantly
calculates the percentage of radiodense breast tissue. The whole process
takes only a few seconds.
Burd and Eckert are currently working with Mandayam to test the accuracy
of the software. They take a material called BR-12 that has optical
characteristics similar to typical breast tissue and obtain a mammogram
of it called an "artificial breast phantom." Based on the
thickness of the BR-12 they predict the radiodensity of the phantom
and then compare it to the software's results.
It will take a few upgrades for the technology to supersede human
analysis. Right now the program can only tell if there is radiodense
tissue in the breast–not precisely where it is. So for their next
challenge, Burd and Eckert will try to find a way for the computer to
pinpoint the location of the suspect tissue.
Four undergraduate students at the University of Arizona are taking
engineering out of the classroom and into the community. Two computer
engineering majors, Cesar Ramirez and Jaime Maldonado, systems engineering
major Jason Wold, and civil engineering major Stephen Rowland are building
an air-quality monitor for the city of Nogales. The struggling town
sits on the border between Arizona and Mexico, about an hour away from
The project, which the students call NogAir, was born out of the Ambos
Nogales Re-vegetation Partnership—a community organization aimed
at reducing erosion, dust, and air pollution through water harvesting
and planting new vegetation. Rowland says Nogales is similar to most
border towns. "The houses look like shacks. They're stacked
up one on top of another, all the way up the hillside. The people are
so friendly though. It almost feels more like a community than Tucson."
It was the community aspect of the project that appealed to Rowland
in the first place. "I thought working with a community would
be better than building some little gadget for a huge corporation that
would never end up using it anyway."
The Nogales community will use the monitor to determine how much dust
is in the air. Vehicle emissions, garbage burning, unpaved surfaces,
and dust from erosion all contribute to the amount of particulate matter
that the NogAir device will monitor.
Already-existing EPA-approved monitors on the market cost about $3,000.
The challenge for the students is to create an alternative monitor that's
within their budget. Meredith Aronson, the students' professor
from the department of materials science and engineering, says, "One
of the technical constraints in the case of working with a community
is cost, and it's those constraints that make the project technically
In fact it's the technical constraints of the project that the
students are immersed in at the moment. "Right now we're
worrying about things like pump sizes and how to monitor air flow,"
Rowland says. "But if we can make the monitor affordable enough
for the community to use it, that will give me a really good feeling
after all the hard work we've put into it."
Jane Rushmore is a freelance writer based in Buffalo,
She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.