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Pathology Unit Promises 'New Frontier' in Cancer Research

Improvements to diagnosing and treating cancer could emerge from combining digital imaging with artificial intelligence in England's first integrated pathology unit, clinicians predicted. The unit would "bring pathology into the modern era", according to its backers, the Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust and The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR).

Pathology is acknowledged as a key component in cancer care, with an estimated 80% of diagnoses and hospital treatments guided by pathology analysis.

Digital cancer pathology is an emerging field in cancer research and cancer diagnostics, and can bring benefits for patients and clinicians alike, according to experts.

'New Set of Tools' for Scientists and Clinicians 

The director of the first integrated pathology unit (IPU) in England, Manuel Salto-Tellez, professor of integrated pathology at The Institute of Cancer Research in London, and clinical consultant at The Royal Marsden, said: "Digital pathology is a new frontier in cancer diagnosis and treatment and represents a chance to make a significant difference to the way we understand, diagnose, and treat cancer."

Professor Kristian Helin, chief executive at the ICR, explained that digital pathology is akin to handing scientists and clinicians a "whole new set of tools" in their work with cancer.

Tissue samples taken from patients being treated at the Royal Marsden, or patients undergoing clinical trials in other cancer centres around the UK, are already being digitised by the pathologists working at the new unit.

The conversion of glass slides of patient's tissue samples into digital slides means these can be viewed and analysed by sophisticated tumour imaging systems on a computer – which in turn can identify important clues about tumours that are not visible to the naked eye, said the experts. In addition, the slides can be easily shared with colleagues and assessed alongside molecular, radiology, and other clinical data. "This will enable cancer to be diagnosed faster and more affordably than using traditional laboratory methods," they emphasised.

Plan for Next Generation of Cancer Tests and Treatments

Digital pathology will be paired artificial intelligence (AI) technology, that will be used to match cancer patients to personalised treatment in the hope of creating a new generation of diagnostic tests that will diagnose cancer more accurately. In addition, the IPU will aim to identify biomarkers which can accurately predict a patient's response to treatment.

The unit also plans to use computer algorithms for tumour boundaries and the make-up of cancer tissues, so they could be measured more accurately. For example, measuring the levels of key cancer proteins and predicting a tumour’s individual genetic signature, both of which could influence treatment options. 

"In the future, images analysed by machine learning could make earlier assessments on whether treatment is working," the experts pointed out.

State-of-the-art laboratory techniques, sophisticated computing tools, and AI would help pathologists lead new research programmes and improving the diagnosis and treatment of cancer for patients, explained Prof Salto-Tellez. "We will bring this to bear on the patient pathway, and thereby open the opportunity for cancer patients to live longer and better lives."

Asked to comment for Medscape News UK Executive Director of Research and Innovation at Cancer Research UK, Dr Iain Foulkes, said: "AI has enormous potential to improve how we detect cancer. Harnessing the technology could reduce pathologists' workload, helping them deliver more crucial tests and improving the chances of an earlier cancer diagnosis."

Professor David Cunningham, director of clinical research at The Royal Marsden and director of the NIHR Biomedical Research Centre at The Royal Marsden and the ICR, commented that research at the IPU could have a "significant impact" on survival rates and quality of life for cancer patients. 

The development of the IPU was an important part of "our mission to defeat cancer", said Prof Helin. "We have a special opportunity to collect data, use them for our research, and create new diagnostic technologies and treatments that can hopefully directly benefit cancer patients."