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How Missile Detection Technology Helps Fight Breast Cancer

October 1, 2018

Innovation and Tech

The US government is credited with developing some of the most advanced technology throughout history: the CORONA satellite, the Hubble Space Telescope, and GPS. The use of technology has always been critical to the intelligence process and the scientists, engineers, and technical experts at CIA more often than not produce technology so advanced it’s classified.

There have been times, however, when CIA has been able to share technology for the greater good of the medical community. This story highlights a technology of particular relevance during Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Missile Algorithms to Detect…Cancer?

According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, one in eight women will develop breast cancer at some point in her life. There is no reliable cure, so early detection is the most important factor in reducing deaths. The most effective detection method is mammograms.

However, analyzing mammograms presented challenges.

A mammogram is a large, high-resolution image, and the small indications of breast cancer are subtle and can be easily overlooked. These indicators are especially difficult to detect during the most crucial time–when the cancer is in its earliest stages.

In early 1994, Dr. Susan J. Blumenthal, then the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Women’s Health in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, suggested that the Intelligence Community (IC) investigate how algorithms developed for missile detection and the monitoring of foreign military developments might be applied to detecting breast cancer.

In July 1994, the National Information Display Laboratory was invited by CIA’s Office of Research and Development to prepare a background paper for Dr. Blumenthal describing some of the advanced image-processing techniques that might be applied to the field of mammography.

The IC had developed computer programs that detected changes in aerial imagery to identify, for example, new roads, or, missile sites. That same technology could be used in mammography analysis.

Computers can align mammograms taken at different times and subtract matching features, leaving only the changes between the two images. This draws attention to any suspicious region and dramatically increases a physician’s ability to detect cancer in its early stage.

The use of this shared technology is believed to have considerably reduced the number of deaths from breast cancer.

CIA Technology Transfers

Early detection of breast cancer is just one example of the IC’s technological advances applicable to the medical community, but there have been many others.

During the Cold War the CIA developed the lithium-ion battery to improve the performance of surveillance equipment and prolong the operation of reconnaissance satellites. The CIA shared this technology with the medical community who then used the lithium-ion battery in pacemakers.

The CIA’s mission is to preempt threats and further US national security objectives. Sometimes those threats extend to our basic human health.

The CIA will continue to develop technology and conduct research that not only advances its mission but, when declassified, can advance the efforts of the medical community to save lives.


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