AI tool scans tumour shape to detect aggressive ovarian cancer

16 January 2019

A team at The Institute of Cancer Research in the UK have created an artificial intelligence (AI) tool that looks for clusters of cells within tumours with misshapen nuclei, the control centres within each cell. The study was published in Nature Communications, and used AI to look at the shape and spatial distribution of ovarian cancer cells and their surroundings.

Women identified with these clusters of shapeshifting cells had extremely aggressive disease, with only 15% surviving for five years or more, which is much lower than the average rate of 53% for other patients with the disease. The researchers found that having misshapen nuclei was an indication that the DNA of cancer cells had become unstable and believe that it could enable future cancer treatments to be personalised for each patient. This is because cancers with misshapen cell nuclei had hidden weaknesses in their ability to repair DNA, which could make them susceptible to certain cancer treatments.

“Using this new test gives us a way of detecting tumours with hidden weaknesses in their ability to repair DNA that wouldn’t be identified through genetic testing,” said Dr Yinyin Yuan, a researcher involved in the study. “It could be used alongside gene testing to identify women who could benefit from alternative treatment options that target DNA repair defects, such as PARP inhibitors.”

She also highlighted the potential of this research to inform new types of ovarian cancer treatment. “Our test also revealed that ovarian tumours with these clusters of misshapen nuclei have evolved a new way of evading the immune system, and it might be possible to target this mechanism with new forms of immunotherapy,” explained Yuan.

The response to these study findings have been extremely positive so far. “This extremely clever new study has shown that by using AI to analyse routinely taken biopsy samples, it is possible to uncover visual clues that reveal how aggressive an ovarian tumour is,” said Professor Paul Workman, chief executive of The Institute of Cancer Research. “What makes this test even more exciting is its ability to pick out in a new and different way those women whose tumours have weaknesses in DNA repair – who might therefore respond to treatments that target these weaknesses.”

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