Space exploration relies on 3D medical imaging

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A unique collaboration created by Harvard's Initiative for Innovative Computing (IIC) has brought together astronomers, medical imaging specialists, and software engineers to adapt medical imaging software to create 3-D views of astronomical bodies.

Alyssa Goodman, director of the IIC and a professor of astronomy in Harvard's faculty of arts and sciences discussed results from the IIC's Astronomical Medicine Project, or AstroMed, last week at the IIC's Inaugural Symposium in Cambridge, Mass. AstroMed researchers are working to modify existing medical imaging programs for use in astronomical research. The revised programs can generate 3-D views of cosmic structures, just as physicians generate 3-D views of anatomical structures.

Astronomical and medical research are more alike than they might seem. Astronomers and medical researchers often rely on quantitative analysis of imaging data for insight. Astronomers may be looking for nuggets of star-forming material buried in interstellar matter while doctors are looking for tumors hidden inside a brain, but the steps in their investigations are extraordinarily similar.

Until recently, researchers would have needed a powerful supercomputer to create 3-D visualizations like those of AstroMed. Now, such visualizations can be done on a laptop with Open Source programs such as "3D Slicer" and "OsiriX."

3D Slicer allows users to interact with data. Not only can a 3-D object be created - it can be rotated, zoomed and cropped using a set of intuitive tools. Using programs like 3D Slicer and OsiriX on virtual 3-D constructions, astronomers can become virtual spacefarers, easily selecting "distances" and viewing angles in order to navigate around a gas cloud and study it from "all sides."

Initially, the AstroMed team has focused on studying dusty gas clouds in the Milky Way that are forming new stars. The team is working to analyze data from the COMPLETE survey of star-forming regions, which has collected extensive infrared and radio measurements of several star-forming complexes. Already, their work on the Perseus region has identified several previously unknown large bubbles and shells of gas, as well as more than a dozen new jets of material shooting from newborn stars, according to the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

Goodman added that while medical advances currently are helping the astronomical community, in the future, astronomers' innovations in extending and improving this software will help the medical community. "The algorithms that we develop to identify star-forming clumps in a dusty gas cloud might be used to identify possible tumors in a person's body," she said.