British scientists invent an artificial eye that can pick up early esophageal cancer, which affects 9,000 Britons a year and many die within 12 months
- Doctors use the artificial pair of eyes to check for pre-cancerous cells
- The flexible tube is inserted while the doctor performs an endoscopy on the patient
- One in five cases of esophageal cancer is missed by doctors at an early stage
- Symptoms include loss of appetite, difficulty swallowing and acid reflux
Artificial intelligence could dramatically improve the chances of picking up the early warning signs of esophageal cancer, a pioneering NHS program has shown.
The computer technology works by analyzing pictures taken during a procedure called endoscopy, in which a small camera at the end of a flexible tube is inserted down the throat – as “an extra pair of eyes” to help doctors identify precancerous cells in the esophagus.
Currently, one in five cases is missed by doctors during a regular endoscopy – sometimes with serious consequences. But new research results from the artificial intelligence software show that it can accurately detect signs of pre-cancer during endoscopies in 92 percent of patients.
Currently, one in five cases is missed by doctors during a regular endoscopy – sometimes with serious consequences. But new research results from the artificial intelligence software show it can accurately detect signs of pre-cancer during endoscopies in 92 percent of patients.
About 9,000 Britons are diagnosed with esophageal cancer every year. Patients with the most common type – adenocarcinoma – live on average only one year after diagnosis, making it one of the most deadly forms of the disease
Professor Rehan Haidry, a consultant endoscopist at the University College London Hospitals NHS Trust, who offers the procedure, said: ‘If we pick up esophageal cancer early, we can treat it with minimally invasive surgery and patients don’t need surgery or chemotherapy and radiotherapy.’
About 9,000 Britons are diagnosed with esophageal cancer every year. Patients with the most common type – adenocarcinoma – live an average of only one year after diagnosis, making it one of the most deadly forms of the disease.
Common symptoms include loss of appetite, difficulty swallowing, and acid regurgitation. In up to 13 percent of patients, the disease is preceded by a condition called Barrett’s esophagus — when cells lining the esophagus change and mutate. Acid reflux is thought to be the main cause – because the stomach acid that rises into the esophagus damages these cells. One in ten patients with acid reflux develops Barrett’s.
In about one in 100 cases per year, the cell changes can become pre-cancerous — a condition called dysplasia — and later turn into full-blown cancer.
Pre-cancerous cells can be surgically removed during the same endoscopy procedure, using a fine thread passed down the throat to scrape out mutated cells. Studies show that the procedure is very effective: 95 percent of patients are still cancer-free after ten years.
In the case of full-blown esophageal cancer, treatment involves removing part of the esophagus. During surgery, incisions are made in the patient’s neck, stomach, or abdomen to remove part or all of the esophagus and replace it with part of the stomach or intestine. But in more than half of these patients, the cancer returns within two to three years.
Advanced disease is treated with a combination of chemotherapy and radiotherapy. This may be followed by immunotherapy if other treatments stop working.
At this point, however, the cancer is usually incurable — and only 15 percent of patients survive five years or more.
The artificial intelligence software, called CADU, increases the chances of early detection of esophageal cancer by focusing on areas of concern in the patient’s throat that are invisible to the naked eye. As the doctor feeds a camera down the patient’s throat, the software analyzes the images the doctor sees in real time and produces alerts that appear on the screen, directing the surgeon to potentially abnormal cells.
The technology has been approved by UK health regulators and has been in use at the UCH in London for the past year. Experts think it will be reviewed for wider use in NHS hospitals next year.
Professor Haidry says: ‘A man in his 60s recently came in with symptoms of Barrett’s esophagus. When I looked at the screen during the endoscopy, I saw no signs of pre-cancer. But the AI system immediately picked it up and marked the area.
“After I scraped off the cells and sent them to the lab, the results came back within a week—and the computer was right. The cells were precancerous.’
The patient is now, hopefully, no longer at risk of developing cancer, and Prof Haidry says: ‘Compare this to the treatment of actual esophageal cancer – patients have to undergo massive surgery to remove part of the esophagus.
‘You have to spend weeks in the hospital, and recovery can take up to six months.
“With the AI procedure, the risk is minimal and patients can go home the next day.”