AI system can detect breast cancer better than doctors, study finds

  • Video report by ITV News Correspondent Richard Pallot

An artificial intelligence programme has been developed which can detect breast cancer from mammograms better than experts, a study has revealed.

New research has found that an AI system can identify cancer in breast screening mammograms with fewer incorrect diagnoses (false positives) and fewer missed cases (false negatives) than radiologists.

There are hopes that the system could help with breast cancer diagnoses in the future, but there are no plans for it to be used yet as further testing still needs to take place.

Currently, one in seven women in the UK develop breast cancer in their lifetimes.

The programme was developed by Google Health in collaboration with DeepMind, Cancer Research UK Imperial Centre, Northwestern University, and Royal Surrey County Hospital.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in the UK – with around 55,000 people diagnosed every year. Credit: PA

Researchers said that the AI model was trained and tuned on anonymised mammograms from more than 76,000 women in the UK and more than 15,000 women in the US to see if it could learn to spot signs of breast cancer.

It was then tested on a separate data selection of more than 25,000 women in the UK and over 3,000 women in the US.

The study found that the AI system produced a 1.2% reduction in false positives, where a mammogram is reported as abnormal when no cancer is present, and 2.7% reduction of false negatives, when the scan is reported as normal even though breast cancer is present, in the UK.

It said that while human experts had access to patient histories and prior mammograms when making screening decisions, the AI system only processed the most recent mammogram with no extra information and “compared favourably”.

The team said that the latest study, published in the journal Nature on Wednesday, “set the stage” for the model to potentially support radiologists performing breast cancer screenings.

Currently in the UK, it takes 10 years to train as a radiologist and at least two assess mammograms.

Should the AI come to be used in hospitals, mammograms could be assessed 24-hours a day, but decisions would still be overseen by radiologists

Dominic King, UK Lead at Google Health, said: “Our team is really proud of these research findings, which suggest that we are on our way to developing a tool that can help clinicians spot breast cancer with greater accuracy.

“Further testing, clinical validation and regulatory approvals are required before this could start making a difference for patients, but we’re committed to working with our partners towards this goal.”

Screening mammography, the most widely used breast cancer screening tool, is an X-ray taken of the breast from multiple views and the images are then analysed by at least two radiologists.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in the UK – with around 55,000 people diagnosed every year, according to Cancer Research UK.

The charity said one in seven women in the UK develops breast cancer during their lifetime, and it more common in older women.

Michelle Mitchell, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, said: “These results highlight the significant role that AI could play in the future of cancer care.

“Embracing technology like this may help improve the way we diagnose cancer in the years to come.

“Screening helps diagnose breast cancer at an early stage, when treatment is more likely to be successful, ensuring more people survive the disease. But it also has harms such as diagnosing cancers that would never have gone on to cause any problems and missing some cancers.

“This is still early stage research, but it shows how AI could improve breast cancer screening and ease pressure off the NHS. And while further clinical studies are needed to see how and if this technology could work in practice, the initial results are promising.”