Prostate cancer is the most common male cancer, with more than a million new cases every year
Chinese scientists and doctors have developed a learning artificial intelligence system which they say can diagnose and identify cancerous prostate samples as accurately as any pathologist.
Experts say this promises the possibility of streamlining and eliminating variation in the process of cancer diagnosis.
They say it may also help overcome any local shortage of trained pathologists.
And, in the longer term, it may lead to automated or at least partially-automated prostate cancer diagnosis.
Prostate cancer is the most common male cancer, with more than a million new cases ever year worldwide.
A new AI system could help to streamline and eliminate variation in the process of cancer diagnosis
This development will help pathologists make better, faster diagnoses, as well as eliminating the day-to-day variation in judgement which can creep into human evaluations
Confirmation of the diagnosis normally requires a biopsy sample, which is then examined by a pathologist.
Now an artificial intelligence learning system, presented at the European Association of Urology congress in Copenhagen, Denmark, has shown similar levels of accuracy to a human pathologist.
And the software can accurately classify the level of malignancy of the cancer, eliminating the variability which can creep into human diagnosis.
Research leader Professor Hongqian Guo, of Nanjing University, said: “This is not going to replace a human pathologist.
“We still need an experienced pathologist to take responsibility for the final diagnosis.
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“What it will do is help pathologists make better, faster diagnoses, as well as eliminating the day-to-day variation in judgement which can creep into human evaluations.”
Prof Guo’s group took 918 prostate whole mount pathology section samples from 283 patients, and ran them through the analysis system, with the software gradually learning and improving diagnosis.
The pathology images were subdivided into 40,000 smaller samples; 30,000 of the samples were used to ‘train’ the software, the remaining 10,000 were used to test accuracy.
The results showed an accurate diagnosis in 99.38 per cent of cases – using a human pathologist as a ‘gold standard’ – which is effectively as accurate as the human pathologist.
They were also able to identify different grades in the pathology sections using AI.
The AI system showed an accurate diagnosis in 99.38 per cent of cases
Prof Guo said: “The system was programmed to learn and gradually improve how it interpreted the samples.
“Our results show that the diagnosis the AI reported was at a level comparable to that of a pathologist.
“Furthermore, it could accurately classify the malignant levels of prostate cancer.
“Until now, automated systems have had limited clinical value, but we believe this is the first automated work to offer an accurate reporting and diagnosis of prostate cancer.
“In the short-term, this can offer a faster throughput, plus a greater consistency in cancer diagnosis from pathologist to pathologist, hospital to hospital, country to country.”
He added: “Artificial intelligence is advancing at an amazing rate – you only need to look at facial recognition on smartphones, or driverless cars.
“It is important that cancer detection and diagnosis takes advantage of these changes”.
Professor Rodolfo Montironi, of the Polytechnic University of the Marche in Italy, said of the breakthrough: “This is interesting work which shows how artificial intelligence will increasingly step into clinical practice.
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“This may be very useful in some areas where there is a lack of trained pathologists.”
He added: “Like all automation, this will lead to a lesser reliance on human expertise, but we need to ensure that the final decisions on treatment stay with a trained pathologist.
“The really important thing though, is that we ensure the highest standard of patient care. The future will be interesting.”
The newness of the system means that there is no information yet on costs or on implementation.