Feds aid Fischer's goal of digital mammography

October 20, 1993

It's a long way from Star Wars to the war on breast cancer, butnot too far for mammography vendor Fischer Imaging. The Denvercompany this month signed an agreement with the Department ofEnergy to develop a full-field-of-view digital mammography unit.The

It's a long way from Star Wars to the war on breast cancer, butnot too far for mammography vendor Fischer Imaging. The Denvercompany this month signed an agreement with the Department ofEnergy to develop a full-field-of-view digital mammography unit.The system will use technology developed to test nuclear weaponsin the Strategic Defense Initiative program.

Fischer chairman and CEO Morgan Nields appeared with EnergySecretary Hazel O'Leary, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and other congressionalrepresentatives at a news conference Oct. 6 in Washington, DC,to announce the agreement. The briefing shed new light on Fischer'seffort to develop a diagnostic digital mammography system capableof imaging the entire breast (SCAN 10/6/93).

Under the terms of the agreement, Fischer will team with engineersfrom Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, CA.During the SDI program, the laboratory developed digital x-raytechnology for nondestructive testing of nuclear-powered antiballisticmissile lasers. When the laser experiments were terminated asSDI research slowed, the laboratory began to explore new applicationsfor its technology, according to mammography project manager ClintLogan of Livermore Laboratory.

"The x-ray attenuation properties of the material (wewere working with) were similar to soft tissue," Logan said."By the time the program began to wind down, we were movingin the same direction as digital mammography; that is, gettingrid of film and doing (testing) with electronic detection."

The agreement gives Livermore $880,000 in DOE funding to continueresearch on digital mammography. Fischer has committed $900,000of its own R&D money, which will be spent on related researchat its laboratories. Fischer will also spend at least $1.5 millionfor clinical trials and expenses related to bringing a productto market, making the entire package worth $3.28 million.

The technology the two will develop is similar to Fischer'sMammoVision digital spot mammography device, which has a 50 x50-mm field-of-view. MammoVision uses a fiber-optic reducer bondedto a charge-coupled device. Fischer and Livermore Laboratory engineerswill design a device using multiple fiber-optic reducers and CCDsthat will achieve an image matrix of 4000 x 5000 pixels, enoughfor full-field-of-view digital mammography, Logan said.

Livermore Laboratory engineers also plan to improve x-ray tubetechnology to create a unit better able to image dense breasts.Molybdenum anode tubes have serious limitations when imaging densebreasts, Logan said. The Fischer-Livermore system would use analternative to molybdenum, such as tungsten anode tubes or tubeanodes made from elements with atomic numbers higher than molybdenum.Ideally, users will be able to tune the x-ray source to matchthe tissue characteristics of the breasts being screened.

The result will be a mammography unit with better image qualitythan standard film-screen systems, with all the benefits of digital,Logan said.

"This system is going to be new from the ground up withthe exception of the (x-ray generator)," Logan said. "Theperformance is going to look so good compared to film-screen thatit will revolutionize this business."

The Fischer-Livermore Laboratory partnership is a good exampleof the kind of agreements the government is promoting to speedthe conversion of defense technology to civilian uses. These partnerships,known as cooperative research and development agreements (CRADA),have become more profitable for private industry because underCRADA, companies can gain exclusive access to government-developedtechnology by paying licensing royalties.

Fischer competitor Lorad also found a friend with brain powerin its drive to develop a full-view digital mammography system.Lorad is working with engineers from parent company ThermoTrex,the research arm of high-technology conglomerate Thermo Electron(SCAN 9/8/93).

Full-view digital mammography could be developed without accessto a specialized research facility like ThermoTrex or LivermoreLaboratory, said Roberto A. Cascella, Fischer president and COO.But having such access helps speed up the process.

"For every dollar that Fischer is spending, we're almostgetting a double bang for our buck by incorporating the mindsat Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory," Cascella said."It certainly is a help to smaller businesses to have thegovernment step in and take a share of these development costs."

Fischer expects to show images from a full-view digital mammographysystem at this year's Radiological Society of North America meeting.A product could be two to three years from market, Cascella said.