Cancer patients could be saved by early diagnosis using artificial intelligence

Posted: 23rd Mar 18 5:30 PM

An artificial intelligence (AI) has been developed that can diagnose scans for lung cancer and heart disease by researchers at an Oxford hospital.

These systems could save billions of pounds by enabling the diseases to be picked up much earlier.

The government’s healthcare tsar, Sir John Bell, told BBC News that AI could “save the NHS”.

“There is about £2.2billion spent on pathology services in the NHS. You may be able to reduce that by 50%. AI may be the thing that saves the NHS,” he said.

The heart disease system will be the first of the two available, with plans for it arrive at NHS hospitals for free this summer.

Detecting lung cancer

The AI system looking for signs of lung cancer searches for large clumps of cells called nodules within the lung. Doctors can’t tell whether these clumps are harmless or will go on to become cancerous, so patients go on to have several more scans to follow the development of the nodules.

However, clinical trials have shown that this AI system can rule out the harmless cases – saving the NHS money and patients several months of anxiety. It can also diagnose lung cancer much earlier.

This AI system is being commercialised by a start-up company called Optellium. The company’s chief science and technology officer, Dr Timor Kadir, says that trials of the AI in Manchester suggest that more than 4,000 lung cancer patients a year could be diagnosed much earlier and so have a much greater chance of survival.

“Rather than focus on cost savings, within a resource-constrained system such as the NHS, we’re really looking at how to offer better healthcare to more people for the same proportion of the GDP. This is the potential of AI in the UK.”

Dr Kadir estimates that the lung cancer diagnosis system could save £10billion if applied in the US and EU.

What are lung nodules?

Lung nodules are small masses of tissue in the lung and are quite common. They appear as round, white shadows on a chest X-Ray or CT scan.

Noncancerous lung nodules are often caused by previous infections and usually require no treatment. In some cases, a doctor may recommend annual chest imaging to see if a nodule grows or changes over time. If a lung nodule is new or has changed in size, shape, or appearance, further testing is usually carried out to determine if the nodule is cancerous.

Lung nodules vary in size, usually between 5 millimetres to 30 millimetres. Larger nodules, such as one that is about 30 millimetres or larger, are more likely to be cancerous than a smaller one.

Artificial Intelligence in cardiology

Currently, cardiologists can tell from the timing of the heartbeat in scans if there is a problem. But even the best doctors get it wrong in one in five cases – patients are either sent home and have a heart attack or they undergo an unnecessary operation.

An AI system developed at the John Radcliffe Hospital diagnoses heart scans much more accurately. It can pick up details in the scans that doctors can’t see.

It can then give a recommendation – whether or not it believes that there is a risk of the patient having a heart attack.

The system has been tested in clinical trials in six cardiology units. The results are due to be published this year in a peer-reviewed journal after they have been checked by experts, but Professor Paul Leeson, a cardiologist who developed the AI system, says that the data indicates that the AI has greatly outperformed even his fellow heart specialists.

“As cardiologists, we accept that we don’t always get it right at the moment. But now there is a possibility that we may be able to do better,” he said.

Lung cancer survival rates

Despite all of these advances, survival rates among lung and other hard to treat cancers remain very low and have hardly changed over the past 30 – 40 years.

Currently, an astounding 73% of people only live for up to one year after a diagnosis of lung cancer, compared to 6% of people diagnosed with breast cancer and 12% of people diagnosed with prostate cancer. 69% and 55% of people diagnosed with breast cancer and prostate cancer survive for seven
or more years, respectively, compared to only 5% of people diagnosed with lung cancer.

Over the next 30 years, it is believed that at 60,000 people will die from mesothelioma, a deadly cancer caused by breathing in harmful asbestos dust and fibres. There is no cure and more than 90% of people die within 3 years of diagnosis.

The UK has the highest rate of mesothelioma in the world, and it is estimated that at least 2,500 people will die each year because of the disease, most of whom having been exposed to asbestos in the workplace.

Despite these statistics, mesothelioma research only receives a fraction of the funds invested in other cancers that kill a similar number of people, such as skin cancer.

These low survival rates are thought to be caused by lung cancer and mesothelioma often being caught too late, such as only being found after an emergency visit to the hospital, or because there is still a significant lack of effective treatment and research funding for the diseases.

Further reading

Positive outcome for mesothelioma claims against factory occupiers in High Court case

Possible mesothelioma breakthrough in Model Tomlin order for settlement of future immonutherapy claims

What is asbestos?

What is mesothelioma?