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Web Exclusive: Satellite Imagery Aids Fight Against Cancer

February 11, 2008
GeoEye's IKONOS detects and analyzes isolated pockets of Canadian yew trees that produce cell-growth inhibitors used in cancer treatment.




Satellite imagery has continued to evolve as a technology over the past 50 years. No longer simply for governmental purposes, satellites are impacting areas far beyond their expected reach. This advancing technology has affected industries that span the business spectrum, including seemingly unrelated industries such as the medical industry.

Remote sensing, coupled with data-processing procedures, has been found effective in detecting and decrypting data concerning natural resources that offer an added health-related benefit. This is the case for the Canadian yew tree (Taxus Canadensis), the main source of Paclitaxal, a chemical substance that, when processed, can be used to treat cancer.

The lens behind the project is GeoEye’s IKONOS Earth imaging satellite. An otherwise nearly impossible task, IKONOS is now remotely providing high-resolution, map-accurate results that help directly localize the tree and reveal its density and even the tree’s health.

GeoEye’s IKONOS satellite was launched in 1999 as the world’s first one-meter ground resolution commercial remote-sensing satellite. IKONOS collects black-and-white and multispectral data at over 2,000 square kilometers per minute while flying 423 miles above the Earth at a speed of 17,000 miles per hour. To date, IKONOS has collected over 300 million square kilometers of imagery and is a powerful tool when combined with advanced geospatial processing. GeoEye also operates the OrbView-2 satellite, mapping aircraft and will launch its next-generation satellite GeoEye-1 later this year.

The yew tree is a slow-growing shrub indigenous to North America. Yews are generally found under neighboring trees in small, isolated pockets. This rare growth life causes the Canadian yew tree to be barely detectable. However, once found, the tree can be stripped of its thin, brownish bark and expansive green leaves every five years. Though the plant is considered toxic, tribes native to its growth areas have used the yew in tea form to treat a range of ailments.

A recent study revealing the health benefits related to Paclitaxal prompted researchers to find efficient solutions to acquire the substance. As a result, the need for large quantities of yew trees has grown exponentially making a once largely ignored tree now a controlled species.

From the leaves and bark of this ancient tree comes the healing substance used as “the first line of defense” on the treatment of cancer. Paclitaxa, or Taxol as it is commercially referred to, is one of a group of plant chemicals called taxanes. In 1991, Bristol-Myers-Squibb joined the National Cancer Institute to research Taxol as an emerging cancer-fighting drug. After millions of dollars in research and development, the drug was approved by the FDA and put on the market in 1993. According to Bristol-Myers Squibb, Taxol became one of the most common cancer treatments in the world.

The drug works by inhibiting cell growth by interfering with the development of the microtubules needed for cell duplication. According to Chemocare.com, Taxol is used to fight breast cancer, ovarian cancer, lung cancer, bladder cancer, prostate cancer, melanoma, esophageal and other solid-tumor cancers. The drug is administered only as an intravenous liquid. According to the Pharmaceutical Research Manufacturers Association, more than 60 percent of the anti-cancer drugs used today are derived from natural products, with Taxol being one of the best-selling cancer drugs ever manufactured.

“This specific case highlights how the uses of satellite imagery fall into a broader spectrum than traditional geospatial technologies and solutions,” said Craig Erikson, GeoEye’s director of North American sales and partner development. “After we collect the initial raw data from IKONOS, we deliver it to VIASAT where they conduct value-added processing and create the analysis to make detection of the yew trees simple and clear.”

VIASAT GeoTechnologies,a GeoEye partner based in Quebec, Canada, provides imagery processing that enables the seamless imagery used in effectively localizing the trees. By handling the remote sensing part of the project, VIASAT is involved in planning the methodology and selecting required data, preparing the tools, acquiring imagery, post-processing imagery, processing data, controlling quality and interpreting results.

The imagery is then used by Roche Ltd. Consulting Group, a Canadian engineering-construction company, to characterize the study area, map the yew clusters using aerial photographs, characterize the sites conducive to yew clusters, directly detect the yew clusters and deliver a final feasibility study report.

“The key is not just finding solutions, it is finding the best one,” said Jean Le Tellier, Earth Observation business development manager for VIASAT GeoTechnologies, when discussing the competitive advantage of satellite imagery over alternative detection methods.

Cost effectiveness, accuracy and reliability are the key aspects that differentiate satellite imagery from other methods, such as air photo interpretation, and in-house harvesting. “One on-field visit is necessary and the processing and post-processing of the raw images can be accomplished in just a few days,” said Le Tellier.

As technology continues to take humankind to unconceivable places, satellite imagery continues to lead the trend by turning remote sensing, the sixth sense enabled by technology, into a life-saving force.