Diagnosis Camera

Jefferson Lab is about ready to test cancer detector

NEWPORT NEWS - Forgive Stan Majewski if he's a little nervous. Think of it as sending a first child off to school - out into the real world.

Four years ago, Majewski and his team of researchers at the Jefferson National Accelerator Facility began using research into nuclear physics to develop high-tech medical instruments.

In the next week, the first of those models - a camera aimed at better diagnosing breast cancer - will go to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore for clinical trials that could lead to widespread production. The camera first will stop at the University of Virginia for some more initial tests.

The camera is the first commercial model to come out of the Jefferson Lab's medical-research program. Majewski, a nuclear physicist, also hopes that it will lead to the next project: building a camera with similar technology that can pick up clogged vessels and other abnormalities in a beating heart.

"This is so much different from testing in a lab," Majewski said. "Of course, there's trepidation if it's going to work as we hope. Especially when we hope there is so much more to come."

HOW IT WORKS

The Jefferson Lab/Dilon Technologies camera is used in a technique called scintimammography - nuclear imaging of the breast - but researchers hope that it also will help diagnose other kinds of cancers. Here's how it works:

  1. Doctors inject a patient with a glucose-based solution that contains a small amount of radioactive material. The solution can also be swallowed.
  2. Cancerous tissue absorbs the solution at a faster rate than normal tissue. Researchers think that this is because the cancerous tissue is growing faster and needs more nutrients, such as glucose. Doctors can track where the solution is concentrated via the radioactive material.
  3. As the radioactive material breaks down, it emits gamma rays - electromagnetic energy - that strike a crystal in the camera and are converted into light. The camera then amplifies the light into stronger electronic signals that a computer displays.
  4. Tumors show up on the screen, like light colors do on a film negative, as dark spots.

Source: Dilon Technologies

The moment also is a big one for Dilon Technologies Inc., a tiny Newport News company that licensed technology for the camera from Jefferson Lab. Dilon officials hope to get U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval for the camera in the spring and build a manufacturing facility by the end of 1999.

Dilon officials also hope that the camera will help diagnose other cancers, such as thyroid cancer, and tell doctors exactly which tumorous lymph nodes need to be taken out.

Each camera would sell for between $100,000 and $120,000, said Lee Fairchild, director of product marketing for Dilon. The Jefferson Lab would get royalties from each sale, though neither side would say how much.

"This is our first real test," Fairchild said. Dilon has six employees but will employ between 60 and 70 people, he said.

The camera will stay at Johns Hopkins for at least two months, and doctors plan to test it on about 50 patients, Jonathan Links said. He's a Johns Hopkins professor of environmental sciences and radiology who's involved in the project.

The camera will be used in a relatively new method of diagnosing breast cancer called scintimammography, or nuclear imaging of the breast. The Dilon camera shows tumors as dark spots on a computer screen.

Scintimammography gives doctors a better idea whether abnormalities in the breast are cancerous, which can avoid the need for biopsies. About 80 percent of the more than 1.2 million biopsies done annually show no cancer.

Scintimammography works especially well on women who have naturally dense breasts or have had surgery - including breast implants - that make traditional mammograms hard to read.

Because the Dilon camera is about a quarter the size of cameras now used in scintimammography, doctors can position it more easily and take pictures from different angles. The size of current cameras make seeing certain tumors difficult, such as smaller ones or those growing close to the chest wall.

"We hope to be able to uncover things hidden," Links said. "It could be a major breakthrough." Doctors also hope that the resolution of the pictures will be better, he said.

The Dilon camera is 62 inches tall and weighs 400 pounds. Unlike the current cameras, which weigh thousands of pounds, it can be wheeled through hospitals.

If all goes well in testing, Dilon officials plan to build a manufacturing facility in the Jefferson Center for Research and Technology, a business park under development near the Jefferson Lab.

Initial production of the cameras will be on an individual basis, as orders come in, and will grow up to 300 a year, Fairchild said.

The Jefferson Lab hopes to develop a spinoff product - a camera with similar nuclear imaging technology that could trace blood flow through the heart. Heart disease is the leading killer in the United States. Doctors have contacted the Jefferson Lab citing the need for an instrument that can capture clearer, more accurate images.

"I think it's the most important thing we'll do," Majewski said.

The lab will need to upgrade the current camera so it can operate more quickly, Majewski said. The Jefferson Lab, which might partner with Hampton University on the project, hopes to build a prototype soon and spend the next three years improving it, Majewski said.

But first, all eyes are on Baltimore.

"The first results are extremely encouraging, but it's something very new," Majewski said. "This is a very special moment."