Research will help to reduce limbo for cancer patients in the UK

A simple test to improve treatment for breast cancer patients invented by scientists in Nottingham could soon benefit people across the UK, as part of a £14 million national initiative.

The PathLAKE project, involving The University of Nottingham’s world-leading breast pathology team, will advance the use of artificial intelligence in cancer diagnosis.

Greg Clark, UK Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), will today (Tuesday) confirm PathLAKE as one of five similar initiatives being funded by United Kingdom Research and Innovation as part of the government’s Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund.

It could bring an end the misery of ‘limbo’ experienced by thousands of people waiting for a cancer diagnosis.

Nearly half of the 55,200 people diagnosed with breast cancer each year in the UK can be successfully treated without needing chemotherapy, which destroys cancer cells but also comes with a range of debilitating side effects.

The Pathology Group in the Nottingham Breast Cancer Research Centre , led by Professor Emad Rakha, Professor Ian Ellis and Dr Andrew Green, has invented a new simple test which is able to determine which of these patients may need chemotherapy to avoid their cancer returning.

Quick, low-cost test

PathLAKE, funded by the Government agency Innovate UK, will use artificial intelligence to develop this test into a quick, low cost version using digital images of 5,000 breast cancers.

Professor Rakha said: “We are thrilled to have received this significant funding from Innovate UK and look forward to working with our partners across the UK.

“This artificial intelligence project will lead to a step change in the treatment of breast cancer patients, resulting in better outcomes.”

Business Secretary Greg Clark said: “AI has the potential to revolutionise healthcare and improve lives for the better. That’s why our modern Industrial Strategy puts pioneering technologies at the heart of our plans to build a Britain fit for the future.

“The innovation at these new centres will help diagnose disease earlier to give people more options when it comes to their treatment, and make reporting more efficient, freeing up time for our much-admired NHS staff time to spend on direct patient care.”

The three-year national PathLAKE initiative also involves experts from NHS hospitals and universities in Belfast and Oxford. It is being led by University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire NHS Trust in partnership with the University of Warwick and the commercial partner Phillips.

Improving treatment

It will focus on breast, prostate, lung and colon cancers and result in greater accuracy at detecting cancerous cells, as well as better prediction of response to cancer treatment.

Pathologists currently carry out testing using a visual examination of tissues under a microscope, a process which is inherently subjective. A large proportion of tissue samples examined are normal but using specialist pathologist time to establish this is expensive.

The project will develop a computer screening programme that will recognise normal tissue so that the sample does not need to be further examined by a pathologist. The programme will also help pathologists improve their decision making in treatments for patients with some forms of breast and prostate cancer.

The development of these tools requires thousands of image files to be obtained by scanning microscope slides – producing a valuable resource.

This will contribute to the establishment of a ‘data lake’ where anonymous patient data will be collected and used in research to look for patterns and trends and shared with commercial partners to develop new tools to improve healthcare – helping to further advance cancer care and treatments.

Pathology at heart of early diagnosis

Peter Hamilton, Head of Research, Philips Digital and Computational Pathology, said: “Pathology is central to ensuring accurate diagnosis for patients with diseases such as cancer, and in determining the precise course of action. However, our ageing population, with rapidly rising sample requirements and increasing case complexity, are placing ongoing pressures on a workforce, which is itself ageing. This creates challenges to ensuring early diagnosis and precision therapies and requires urgent attention, so we are delighted the UK government recognises the potential that digitilisation and AI could bring to pathology.

“We are excited to play a part in helping the UK take a leading role in the development and delivery of these new technologies that can improve patient outcomes and reinvigorate the workforce. With PathLAKE, our aim is to realise large scale AI-driven cancer analysis and we see this as a significant step towards harnessing the true potential of personalised medicine and supporting the NHS.”

Nottingham is renowned for establishing one of the world’s largest tissue banks for breast cancer research and the Pathology Group has an international track record in the field of breast cancer pathology.

It has previously developed a breast cancer grading system which is the international gold standard and the Nottingham Prognostic Index which is regarded as the most effective system for clinical decision support in routine clinical management.

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