Press Release

NASA Infrared Camera Helps Surgeons Map Brain Tumors

By SpaceRef Editor
July 15, 2004
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Using an infrared video camera developed by scientists at
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif.,
surgeons are testing thermal imaging and image processing to
see if they can create useful maps of brain tumors.

Researchers want to see if the camera, which detects infrared,
or heat, emissions, might help neurosurgeons better visualize
tumors before they operate and also find tiny clusters of
cancerous cells that might remain after surgery.

NASA scientists already may use infrared technology to map
Earth’s surface and search for distant objects in the
universe. Firefighters use it to locate people trapped in
buildings, and military forces track down their targets hiding
in the dark.

Physicians have used infrared technology for mapping the roots
of skin cancer, but it’s never been used for brain tumors
until now.

Doctors at the Keck School of Medicine of the University of
Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles are using the JPL-
developed camera and infrared imaging in a trial. They’re
trying to see if they can sketch tumor margins by detecting
temperature changes during surgery, since tumor cells emit
more heat than healthy ones. “The camera’s precision allows it
to map temperature differences of one-hundredth of a degree
Celsius at a high resolution,” said Dr. Sarath Gunapala, JPL
lead engineer for the camera.

Currently, neurosurgeons delve carefully into the brain and
remove as much of the tumor as they can see under
magnification. However, they may take healthy tissue along
with the cancerous cells or leave residual cells that can grow
back along the tumor’s margins.

“Brain tumor tissue looks the same as healthy tissue on the
edges,” said Babak Kateb of the Keck School of Medicine, a
research fellow and lead scientist of the project. “Tumor
cells use different biochemical pathways from normal cells,
and when researchers use the infrared camera, they can pick up
hotspots or areas of tissue warmer than normal tissue,” he

After doctors receive infrared images of the brain, imaging-
processing software marks the boundaries between tumor regions
and surrounding healthy tissue. “We are refining software
similar to what our group has been using for analyzing rocks
on Mars and other planets,” said Dr. Wolfgang Fink, JPL senior

“An advantage of thermal imaging is that it’s non-invasive,”
said Dr. Peter Gruen, a neurological surgeon at the Keck
School of Medicine. “It measures heat energy emerging from
patients without exposing them to X-rays or intravenous
solutions, and is performed without incisions or contact to
the brain tissue,” he added.

A clinical study of this proposed mapping process is underway
at the Keck School of Medicine.

This is another example of the great benefits of transferring
NASA-developed technology for the public good.

For more information on the USC study on the Internet, visit:

For more information on the infrared camera on the Internet,

For more information on NASA spinoffs on the Internet, visit:

For more information about NASA on the Internet, visit:

SpaceRef staff editor.