We spoke to our expert astronomer turned breast cancer researcher, Dr Susan Astley, about how her early fascination with the stars led her to specialise in breast imaging, and why it’s so important for scientific disciplines to take ideas and inspiration from each other.

Tuesday 23 February 2016      Research blog
From a single atom to Einstein’s universe: How physics makes waves in breast cancer research

Breast Cancer Now researcher Dr Susan Astley on holiday in Banff, Canada, at the Sulphur Mountain Cosmic Ray station

Last week’s news that an international team of scientists detected gravitational waves for the first time made, well, waves across the world. And for good reason: this was a huge leap forward in our understanding of the universe. But for those of us who don’t quite have a working knowledge of Einstein’s theory of relativity, it left us wondering what difference this celestial discovery might actually make back down on earth.

There are countless examples of discoveries in one field of science paving the way for advancements in another, sometimes many decades later. A prime example is the discovery of x-rays by Wilhelm Röntgen in 1895, without which we wouldn’t have mammography to screen around two million women every year in the UK for breast cancer.

So, how can we make sure today’s physicists will be thanked for more medical advancements in centuries to come?

From the stars to medical research, via cosmic rays

Dr Susan Astley is a Reader in Imaging Science at the University of Manchester. With Breast Cancer Now funding she is using computer modelling to develop a new way to detect areas of high breast density in breast screening images. Her fascination with science, however, started in an astronomy club far far away…

“My father was an RAF pilot and talked about navigating using the stars. I joined a local astronomy club as a teenager, and jumped at the opportunity to take courses in the subject at university.”

She went on to study maths, computing, astronomy and astrophysics at university, and landed her first job at the Royal Observatory. In the Time Department, Dr Astley’s job was to answer the question, when do we need a ‘leap second’? 

Later on, Dr Astley went on to join the Haverah Park Cosmic Ray Group at the University of Leeds. Cosmic rays are nuclei of common elements accelerated to very high energies and are continuously bombarding our atmosphere.

Dr Astley had made her mark in physics, and became interested in applying her expertise to medical research.

“I became interested in computing science first – it was a field that developed rapidly through my time in astronomy. Studying in London I discovered the potential to make a real difference to people’s lives by applying my knowledge to medical imaging.”

Within just a few years, her move was a clear example of how scientists from different fields working together can tackle problems in completely new ways.

“Medical imaging technologies are grounded in physics – from the construction of new techniques such as Digital Breast Tomosynthesis to understanding what exactly each element in an image represents."

How can astronomy be used to develop mammograms?

One of Dr Astley's first projects in mammographic imaging was a collaboration with astronomers in Scotland who had developed techniques to detect stars and galaxies in astronomical photographs, and wanted to use similar methods to detect ‘stellate’ lesions in x-ray mammograms.

“Stellate means ‘star-like’, and is used to describe abnormalities (sometimes cancerous) in breast tissue which appear on a mammogram as a central mass with a spikey surface. They can be difficult to spot because the surrounding tissue tends to obscure the spikes which can be quite faint, and the central mass can come in all shapes and sizes.”

Since then we’ve come a long way in developing techniques to help spot these tumours on mammograms. So what does she think the physicists of today will be pairing up with breast cancer researchers to discover next?

“One of the most interesting areas that might eventually have implications for breast cancer research is the discovery of how to extract graphene, which actually took place right here at the University Manchester in 2004. Graphene is a form of carbon made up of honeycomb-lattice sheets which are just one atom thick. Researchers are currently investigating its potential use in medical imaging, for instance to make x-rays safer and more precise.”

Making (gravitational) waves

While we have Wilhelm Röntgen’s discovery of x-rays to thank for today’s mammography, it was Dr Astley’s father talking about navigating by the stars that led to her exciting work which has the potential to shape the next generation of screening technologies.

As for the discovery of gravitational waves, what ripples does she think that could make for future generations?

“I think its main contribution for cancer researchers of the future will be to inspire young people to take up science, and young physicists to think creatively. We can then encourage them to bring their skills and knowledge to areas which they might not otherwise have thought about exploring.”

More information

Find out how Dr Astley is developing better ways to detect breast density

Take a look at our other Research blogs


About the author

Katherine Woods Author Profile

Katherine Woods is a Senior Research Communications Manager at Breast Cancer Now.

The Research Communications team keeps our supporters and the public up to date with the exciting progress our scientists are making against breast cancer, as well as research news from around the world.