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Colonoscopy on a Cloud

With the aid of the internet and supercomputers, a virtual version of this procedure may reduce incidences of colorectal cancer.

Winter 2011
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Gastroenterologists might one day find aid in analyzing colonoscopies by accessing massive computer processing power and the world’s best doctors. Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital, having created an efficient virtual colonoscopy, plan to move their system to the cloud, which would allow physicians to view a scan together to collaborate on diagnoses.

To build a 3-D rendering of a patient’s lower intestine, software stitches together 1,000 cross-section images taken by a CT scan of the abdomen. This rendering allows physicians to examine the colon without inserting a camera into the patient, as with traditional colonoscopies. And while a typical exam requires that patients drink powerful laxatives beforehand to ensure an unobstructed view, in MGH’s exam a patient imbibes only a small amount of barium or iodine, which allows his or her waste to be detected by software and removed digitally.

Such scans, however, require substantial computing power, so much so that MGH’s technology took more than an hour to generate a rendering (a traditional colonoscopy, by contrast, provides real-time information). In collaboration with Microsoft and Intel, MGH reduced rendering time to nearly one minute after a tenfold boost in processing power.

Recent studies have shown virtual colonoscopies to be nearly as reliable as the traditional kind. Yet any small disadvantage over a traditional exam, researchers assert, will be outweighed by the fact that the new method will coax into doctors’ offices people who would otherwise stay away‚Äîand thus, they hope, detect more cases of colon cancer earlier.

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