Jefferson Lab: Cancer-seeking Camera Demystifies Research Lab

For those of us who know Einstein more from the Pepsi commercial than from the physics textbook, it's easy to get confused by the work conducted at Jefferson Lab. Surely great research is going on at the nuclear physics lab in Oyster Point, formally known as the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility. But all those electrons, protons and croutons -- wait a minute, that's not it -- may seem bewildering.

Here's something we all can understand: Work done at the Jefferson Lab may save women needless pain.

Scientists there have developed the technology behind a special camera that can help detect breast cancer. Doctors at the Riverside Diagnostic and Breast Imaging Center are testing the camera, which can more precisely determine whether women truly need biopsies.

Currently, doctors don't have a good test to diagnose breast cancer without taking a tissue sample. However, of the 1.2 million biopsies done each year in the United States, about 900,000 come back negative. That's a lot of unnecessary anesthesia and a lot of unnecessary needles.

Using the high-tech camera, doctors can get a more accurate reading of possible cancer cells, and they also may be able to find cancer earlier.

The Jefferson Lab, with an annual budget of $90 million, probes the nucleus of the atom.

Scientists from all over the world use the atom smasher there to explore fundamental questions of science. From its inception, the focus has properly been on pure science, not on spinning off practical technology.

But practical effects were foreseen, too, which is why Newport News developed the Applied Research Center adjacent to the land it put up for the physics lab. In fact, other technologies have previously emerged from Jefferson Lab, such as the free-electron laser that might have applications from microscopic manufacturing to laser-beam weapons.

But the news about this special camera brings a Jefferson Lab spinoff into focus on a human scale. It promises to help women escape the emotional and physical trauma of biopsies and aid in the early detection of breast cancer.

That's not hard to understand at all.