Using Missile Technology to Fight Breast Cancer

At age 42, Jeannie Siefert struggles to talk about the future. She was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer five months ago but is doing her best to stay positive.

"There's no way that this thing has a chance," Siefert said. "At least I hope."

To put up the strongest fight, Siefert enrolled in an experimental study that uses technology born from the "Star Defense System" in the 1980s and that could prove to be a successful treatment for breast cancer.

Targeting Missiles and Cancerous Cells

To protect Americans from a Russian missile attack, scientists developed special infrared photo technology to map the heat from a missile approaching the United States so that it could be destroyed in midflight.

Today, that same technology is being used to map the temperature of the skin in a bioscan. Extra heat generated from specific areas of the skin can be an indication of a tumor.

"The tumor causes increased blood flow at the surface of the skin," said Dr. David Weng of The Cleveland Clinic. "You can actually see where the tumor is on the patient's body."

Weng is the first doctor to experiment with bioscan and says he wants to study its potential to detect cancer's response to chemotherapy.

"Current methods for determining whether a patient is responding or not -- responding to treatment -- involve physical examination," Weng said.

A physical examine is cheap and easy, but not necessarily an accurate method to measure tumor shrinkage.

"All you're feeling is a lump, and that lump could very well be inflammatory tissue or scar tissue rather than tumor," Weng said.

A Clearer Picture

Weng wants to see whether the bioscan can be a more reliable exam in looking at breast tumors. If doctors know a tumor is shrinking, they can limit a patient's exposure to toxic chemotherapy. If a tumor isn't responding to treatment, medications can be trained.

"One of the fears that I carry with me every time I come for an appointment is that they can't really say to me, 'OK, it's gone from this to that,'" Siefert said. "To be able to actually point to numbers and data, I just think would be tremendous."

To find out whether the bioscan is a reliable way to detect tumor shrinkage, Weng is comparing patients' weekly physical exams to weekly bioscan images.

The treatment is currently in experimental stages, and has only been tried on 24 patients. Doctors don't know enough yet to recommend it, but Siefert is happy to have been part of the trial -- if not to help her, then maybe somebody else.

"I hope that I'm around to see definitive results of how this works and [whether] it's really going to be a viable thing for the future," she said.

ABC medical contributor Dr. Tim Johnson reported this story for "Good Morning America."