Astronomers Help Fight Cancer: Here’s How

Astronomers Help Fight Cancer: Here’s How

by Dr. Kaushik Bharati on Jul 3 2019 4:40 PM
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  • Astronomical techniques can now be applied for the diagnosis and treatment of cancer
  • These techniques are helping to develop rapid diagnostic tests (RDTs) and effective treatments for cancer
  • Photodynamic and photothermal therapies are emerging as effective treatment regimens for breast cancer and non-melanoma skin cancer (NMSC)
Astronomers could help fight breast and skin cancer, through their fundamental discoveries on the properties of light, suggests a new study from the University of Exeter, UK.
Astronomy largely involves the detection and analysis of light, such as scattering, absorption, and re-emission of light waves by clouds of gases and dust particles. This helps astronomers understand the properties of their internal environments. These same principles can be exploited when light waves are passed through the human body, where it can detect subtle differences in density in the body tissues. In this way, cancerous growths can be detected due to their differential density from the surrounding tissues.

The study was jointly led by Dr. Charlie Jeynes, PhD and Professor Tim Harries, PhD. Dr. Jeynes is an STFC ‘Innovation’ Research Fellow at the Center for Biomedical Modeling and Analysis, University of Exeter, UK. Professor Harries is the Head of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Exeter, UK.

The work is being presented by Jeynes at the Royal Astronomical Society’s National Astronomy Meeting (NAM 2019) at the University of Lancaster, UK.


Breast Cancer Facts


How is Breast Cancer Linked to Astronomy?

During the development of breast cancer, calcium is deposited in the breast tissues. The calcium deposits have a higher density compared to the surrounding tissue. This difference in density can be detected by a shift in the wavelength of light during its passage through the breast tissue. These same principles have been used for a long time in astronomy for studying the formation of planets and stars. Hence, breast cancer detection and astronomy are linked through the same technology used in both disciplines.

Jeynes says: “Light is fundamental to a diverse range of medical advances, like measuring blood oxygenation in premature babies, or treating port-wine stains with lasers. So there is a natural connection with astronomy, and we’re delighted to use our work to take on cancer.”


What Studies are Being Conducted by Astronomers on Cancer?

The major studies being carried out at the University of Exeter are briefly highlighted below:
  • Computer modeling is being used to elucidate the behavior of light waves when they pass through human tissue, which will eventually help to develop rapid diagnostic tests (RDT), alleviating the need for biopsies
  • Computer modeling is being used for developing new treatments for non-melanoma skin cancer (NMSC), which is the most common type of skin cancer, affecting 80,000 people annually in England
  • A simulated ‘virtual laboratory’ is being developed based on computer coding to study skin cancer treatments
  • The new treatments for skin cancer involve light-activated drugs for photodynamic therapy and light-heated nanoparticles for photothermal therapy
  • The new treatments are effective in rats and will soon be tested in humans

Future Plans

The research team plans to carry out three-dimensional (3-D) modeling using actual images of tumors, so that they can simulate the effect of different treatment modalities. The efficacy of these treatments under simulation will be compared to actual data on how the tumors respond to treatment. This will help in predicting which treatment regimen is the best for a particular type of tumor, thereby giving doctors a variety of options to choose from while planning treatment.

Concluding Remarks

Jeynes concludes: “Advances in fundamental science should never be seen in isolation. Astronomy is no exception, and though impossible to predict at the outset, its discoveries and techniques often benefit society. Our work is a great example of that, and I’m really proud that we’re helping our medical colleagues wage war on cancer.”

  1. Applying an Astrophysics Modeling Tool to Improve the Diagnosis and Treatment of Cancers Using Theranostic Nanoparticles - (


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