Tuesday, October 4, 2011

NASA technology enters new frontiers

  Gail Overton
  Senior Editor
  Laser Focus World


Back in early August, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA; Washington, DC) announced its "Can you see it now?" campaign in which the Innovative Partnerships Program Office (IPPO) at NASA decided to license the wavefront sensing and adaptive optics technologies, procedures, and lab equipment from the James Webb Space Telescope program to private industry.

But in addition to those wavefront sensing and adaptive optics technologies, the IPPO office at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC; Greenbelt, MD) is also licensing their hierarchical image segmentation (HSEG) algorithm. This HSEG technique--originally developed for Earth science image enhancement and analysis more than a decade ago--is entering a new frontier in the medical imaging market as a powerful diagnostic tool, thanks to the licensing program.

NASA Goddard says that when Dr. James Tilton started development of his HSEG algorithm, he gave little thought to its possible medical applications. However, a workshop sponsored by Goddard’s IPPO brought HSEG to the attention of an entrepreneur in the medical imaging market and helped launch a product with the potential of saving a significant number of lives.

The HSEG algorithm closely intertwines image segmentation via region growing, which finds spatially connected region objects with region object classification and then groups those sets of region objects together into region classes. This feature of HSEG provides the potential of using spatial pattern recognition to recognize land use categories. As an example, consider a portion of a satellite image depicting the Patterson Park area of Baltimore, MD:

IMAGE: In one example, the hierarchical image segmentation (HSEG) algorithm uses spatial pattern recognition to recognize land use categories. (Courtesy NASA Goddard)

The HSEG analysis of this image shows a certain regularity of the roof pattern to the southeast, east, and north of Patterson Park indicative of an older residential area. The roof pattern to the southwest and west of Patterson Park has a denser concentration of businesses and apartment complexes. Pixel-based analysis could never detect this difference in spatial patterning.

So how did the life-saving medical application come about? About ten years ago, the GSFC IPPO hosted a workshop to showcase its technologies for the business community. In attendance, Fitz Walker, president and CEO of a small company called Bartron Medical Imaging (Largo, MD), saw immediate potential for HSEG as a diagnostic tool that could be adapted to enhance medical imagery, allowing for quicker and more accurate identification of problematic tissues such as cancer. Bartron licensed the technology from Goddard, which is now FDA-approved as MED-SEG, a tool that helps clinical professionals interpret medical images.

IMAGE: An original mammogram is shown before MED-SEG processing (left), and after MED-SEG processing (right), indicating a region of interest in white. (Courtesy Bartron Medical Imaging)

The Bartron website says that MED-SEG provides improved diagnoses for a wide range of medical images, including CT and PET scans, MRI, ultrasound, X-ray, digitized mammography, soft tissue analysis, and moving object analysis including microscopy and endoscopic examinations. Physicians and health care practitioners can take any unmanipulated medical image and segment it to ‘see’ features in the image that were not previously visible to the naked eye, isolating one particular area of interest in an image to compare it with many other reference images databased at other health care facilities, for instance. Bartron says the MED-SEG system brings out properties not seen with the naked eye or with current imaging enhancement systems.

NASA Goddard wants to remind the photonics community that it continues to develop HSEG for licensing opportunities in markets as diverse as facial recognition, image data mining, and crop monitoring. If you have a new frontier in mind for such a technology, please contact the GSFC IPPO at http://ipp.gsfc.nasa.gov/index.shtm. Who knows, space may not be the “final frontier” after all!

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