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AI in Action: Improving screening for oral cancer

Dr. Jesse Chao
Written by Anna McClellan

Throughout history, advancements in technology have played a significant role in how we live our lives. It has continuously aided in healthcare breakthroughs and holds significant potential for the future. Researchers at Sunnybrook are using emerging artificial intelligence (AI) technologies to advance the diagnosis, treatments and outcomes of some of the world’s most debilitating diseases, like cancer.

Oral cancer is a form of head and neck cancer, affecting more than 5,000 Canadians per year. Progression of the disease can drastically affect the way an individual eats and speaks. Dr. Jesse Chao, scientist in the Odette Cancer Research Program and Canada Research Chair in Precision Cancer Diagnostics and Artificial Intelligence, is developing new AI software to better detect cancerous cells in the mouth and lymph nodes which will support early detection, staging, and prognosis, leading to improved patient outcomes.

Timely diagnosis plays a critical role in the treatment and recovery of cancer patients. The earlier tumours are detected and diagnosed, the more responsive cancerous cells are likely to be to treatments like surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. Unfortunately, the diagnosis of oral cancer and nodal disease can often be a difficult and time-consuming process. Dr. Chao’s research is aiming to close this gap.

“Our team has developed an AI model that examines tissue samples at various magnification levels, imitating the workflow of a pathologist,” explains Dr. Chao. “This significantly decreases the computational load and complexity of integrating tissue and cellular data for precise tumour detection.”

Using samples from over 500 patients with oral cancer, Dr. Chao and his team are training AI software to automate the image analysis of microscopy data. The software first identifies regions in the tissue and pinpoints areas likely to contain tumours, it then confirms the presence of cancerous cells.

Pathologists often have to go through numerous slides and use many different dyes and stains to determine an oral cancer diagnosis. “Automating this process enhances diagnostic quality, advances early detection, supports personalized treatments and ultimately improved patient outcomes,” adds Dr. Chao.

The software can be used by pathologists to help analyze a sample or provide a second opinion. The software also has the opportunity to serve communities outside of urban centres that lack access to quality cancer care and resources, as it can be accessed remotely by physicians and serve as a potential preliminary diagnosis.

Currently Dr. Chao and his lab are applying this model to detect instances of oral cancer, however, with further research Dr. Chao hopes the software will play a role in the diagnosis of other forms of cancer.

About the author

Anna McClellan

Anna McClellan is a Communications Specialist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. Have a question about this post? Get in touch.