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Coming soon: 3-D mammography, glasses included

by Brendon Nafziger, DOTmed News Associate Editor | April 12, 2012
Cinema observers have noted that 3-D comes to the theaters in waves. In the 1950s, a couple of decades before the technology for polarized glasses was brought to the movies, teens lined up for "Creature from the Black Lagoon" and other cheesy flicks. A mini-craze erupted briefly in the 80s ("Jaws 3-D," anyone?), and now in a post-"Avatar" world we're seeing a glut of 3-D films made by studios hoping to charge viewers a few extra bucks for the privilege of seeing such immortal works of cinema as "Wrath of the Titans" (which opened last month) in all three dimensions.

While for the pictures, 3-D glasses have rarely been more than a gimmick, they shouldn't be written off just yet. In medicine, some researchers think they can help doctors and surgeons do their job. And one company even hopes they could help radiologists spot breast cancer.

3-D in medicine

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That company is Fujifilm Medical Systems, and this weekend at a radiology conference in Japan, it's demonstrating a mammography workstation that comes with polarized glasses and lets radiologists review breast images in stereoscopic 3-D.

What good is stereo 3-D? Robert Held, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of California, Berkeley who has studied stereo 3-D displays in medicine (but who has not worked with this machine and has no connection to Fujifilm), says doctors have been using stereo 3-D monitors in a small way for decades, although they aren't always necessary.

"Quite often the case is that people think stereo is going to help you no matter what, but it's important to realize there are specific situations where the stereo information will help you out," he tells DOTmed News.

Mostly, these are situations with few monocular depth cues -- the signs of depth you could pick up even if you lacked stereo vision. For instance, if you're walking down the street, you would gain a pretty robust guide to depth just by noticing the relative size of objects, the fact that objects farther away appear smaller, and by taking into account linear perspective, in which parallel lines appear to converge in the distance.

But these cues are generally absent in many medical situations, such as for surgeons looking through monitors while performing laparoscopic surgeries or while controlling surgical robots.

"Once you get into anatomy, there are very irregular structures, so you lose a lot of that monocular information that you get from a typical object," Held says.

But surgeons could still potentially benefit from knowledge of depth as they make tricky cuts and snips. That's partly why Intuitive Surgical's pricey Da Vinci surgical robot, for instance, presents images in 3-D to the surgeons operating it. But surgery isn't the only case where stereo 3-D could be useful.

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