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AI Software Will Help Clinicians Diagnose Lung Cancer Earlier and Reduce Waiting Lists for Patients

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A new artificial intelligence software that will help doctors to make quicker and more accurate decisions when diagnosing potentially cancerous lung lesions, has received major government funding.

This is a step towards bringing the benefits of earlier diagnosis of lung cancer, the leading source of cancer death, to all patients across the National Health Service.

The lung cancer prediction AI software, Virtual Nodule Clinic (VNC), which has been developed by Optellum, Oxford, will examine lung nodules to determine whether they are benign or malignant. The pioneering AI solution has been shown to outperform existing methods to predict malignancy in nodules in a multi-centre study conducted by Nottingham, Oxford, and Leeds clinicians with results published in BMJ Thorax last year.

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in the UK, accounting for 21% of all cancer deaths in any one year. When diagnosed at an early stage, almost 57% of people in the UK with lung cancer will survive their disease for five years or more, compared with only 3% when the disease is the latest stage. Currently, around three-quarters of lung cancer cases are diagnosed at a late stage in the UK, although the survival rate for small tumours treated at Stage IA is up to 90%.

Waiting lists are a problem for the NHS even at the best of times and, due to the pandemic, researchers have estimated between 1,235 and 1,372 additional deaths in lung cancer due to diagnostic delays.

DOLCE is a landmark research project led by Professor David Baldwin, honorary professor of medicine at the University of Nottingham and consultant physician at Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust. It will show how many CT scans, expensive PET scans, and biopsies are saved by the Optellum software and how much faster the diagnosis of cancer is confirmed. If the utility and safety are confirmed, the solution could be implemented nationally with fewer harms to patients, reduced anxiety for patients waiting for tests, and substantial savings in precious radiology resources.

The project is part of the NHS AI Lab’s £140 million AI in Health and Care Award. The AI in Health and Care Award aims to accelerate the testing and evaluation of AI in the NHS so patients can benefit from faster and more personalised diagnosis and greater efficiency in screening services.

The NHS AI Lab is led by NHSX and delivered in partnership with the Accelerated Access Collaborative (AAC) and National Institute for Health Research (NIHR).

The health and social care secretary, Matt Hancock, announced this latest award last week, which will see 38 projects awarded a share of £36 million to test state-of-the-art AI technology.

Professor Baldwin, who is also chair of the Clinical Expert Group for Lung Cancer, NHS England, and co-author of the current clinical guidelines for lung cancer in the UK, said: “We are delighted to receive this award. This technology is truly transformative and we have previously shown that this software can help us to safely discharge more people with pulmonary nodules earlier, reducing anxiety amongst patients waiting for repeat scans and also the need for potentially harmful tests. This is also very important to the NHS because it will reduce the pressure on radiology resources.

“In this latest study (DOLCE) we aim to confirm the findings shown by three previously published studies so clinicians will be able to confidently improve patient care beyond current practice. It is also about earlier identification of the relatively small number of cancers, which will be tested and again may change practice and bring forward diagnosis of lung cancer to improve survival and mortality.”

The team at Optellum and Professor Baldwin will now work with 10 leading NHS hospitals to deploy the technology for clinical evaluation, taking the solution one step closer to being widely deployed to benefit patients across the entire country as a new standard of care.

Dr Vaclav Potesil, co-founder and CEO of Optellum, said: “We are delighted to be working in partnership with ten hospitals and leading experts across the NHS to continue to develop our lung cancer prediction software. It is already in clinical use and benefitting patients at leading hospitals in the US. The NHSX award will help us accelerate bringing the AI-driven early diagnosis and treatment of lung cancer to all NHS patients as soon as possible.”

Dr Indra Joshi, director of AI, NHSX, said: “With this latest round of AI award winners, we now have an incredible breadth of expertise across a wide range of clinical and operational areas. Through this award, X will be at the forefront of applying artificial intelligence in new ways to transform health and care.”

Partners working alongside Optellum and Nottingham are leading lung cancer experts across the NHS: Professor Fergus Gleeson of Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust; Professor Matthew Callister and Professor Andrew Scarsbrook of Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust; Dr Richard Lee (co-ordinating Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust and satellite sites); and Professor Sam Janes coordinating University College London Hospital NHS Foundation Trust and satellite sites.

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