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NHS gets £50m in AI funding for digital pathology

Government funding package focuses on earlier diagnosis of cancer in the West Midlands, north of England and London

The Department of Health and Social Care has announced £50m funding for three digital pathology and imaging artificial intelligence (AI) centres in Coventry, Leeds and London.

The centres were set up in 2018 with funding from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Two other centres are located in Oxford and Glasgow.

The three centres to share the latest tranche of funding will deliver digital upgrades to pathology and imaging services across an additional 38 NHS trusts, said the department.

Health and social care secretary Matt Hancock said: “I am determined we do all we can to save lives by spotting cancer sooner. Bringing the benefits of artificial intelligence to the front line of our health service with this funding is another step in that mission.”

The Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic has put off people with possible cancer symptoms coming forward for diagnosis, as has been reported by the BMJ, among others.

According to the BMJ, one paper, published in April 2020, estimated that “at least 6,270 additional deaths could occur in England over the next 12 months in patients with new cancer diagnoses – a 20% increase – as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic… Some of the excess deaths will be among people with cancer who contract Covid-19, while others will occur because diagnosis was late or treatment such as chemotherapy was delayed”.

The government has declared the new funding to be part of its commitment to “detecting three-quarters of all cancers at an early stage by 2028”.

The department statement added: “Over 92% of urgent cancer referrals are being investigated within two weeks, and 85,000 people have started treatment for cancer since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.”

Darren Treanor, national pathology imaging co-operative director and consultant pathologist at Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, said of the £50m investment: “This will allow us to use digital pathology to diagnose cancer at 21 NHS trusts in the north, serving a population of six million people. We will also build a national network spanning another 25 hospitals in England, allowing doctors to get expert second opinions in rare cancers, such as childhood tumours, more rapidly.

“The knowledge PathLAKE [Pathology image data Lake for Analytics, Knowledge and Education] will completely transform cancer care in the NHS while embedding a world-leading life-sciences and technology sector across our health system.”

Read more about AI in the NHS

PathLAKE is a “consortium” led by University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire (UHCW) NHS Trust in collaboration with teaching hospitals and universities in Belfast, Oxford and Nottingham.

Kiran Patel, chief medical officer and interim CEO for UHCW NHS Trust, said: “We are delighted to receive and lead this funding. This represents a major capital investment into the NHS which will massively expand the digitisation of cellular pathology services, driving diagnostic evaluation to new heights and increasing access to a vast amount of image information for research.”

And Reza Razavi, director of the London Medical Imaging and AI Centre for Value-Based Healthcare, said: “Artificial intelligence technology provides significant opportunities to improve diagnostics and therapies, as well as reduce administrative costs.

“With machine learning, we can use existing data to help clinicians better predict when disease will occur, diagnosing and treating it earlier, and personalising treatments, which will be less resource-intensive and provides better health outcomes for our patients.”

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