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New UK government push to expand AI-based diagnostics in long-term cancer detection strategy

As part of its long-term response to COVID-19, and its commitment to detecting three-quarters of cancers at an early stage by 2028, the UK Government has announced a further £50 million in funding to support diagnostic centres of excellence in developing AI to diagnose disease. 

The funding boost will scale up the work of existing Digital Pathology and Imaging Artificial Intelligence Centres of Excellence, launched in 2018 to develop cutting-edge digital tools to improve the diagnosis of disease, and should ultimately lay the groundwork for a new national diagnostic network spanning tens of hospitals across the UK National Health Service (NHS). Through the immediate funding, centres in the cities of Coventry, Leeds and London will deliver digital upgrades to pathology and imaging services across an additional 38 NHS Trusts. 

National Pathology Imaging Co-Operative Director Darren Treanor singled out the value of the AI-driven technology in providing a “second opinion” on rare cancers such as childhood tumours, supporting doctors through supplementary, data-driven clinical decision-making to speed up the diagnostic and therapeutic decision-making processes and enable the rapid processing of patients. 

Fresh AI drive to innovate within and digitise healthcare 

Reza Razavi, Director of the London Medical Imaging and AI Centre for Value-Based Healthcare – one of the recipients of the new tranche of funding – welcomed the additional support, stressing research centre to continue its mission to increase the uptake of AI technology in diagnostics and therapeutics, and to support clinicians in delivering personalised care. 

Led by King’s College London, the Centre creates a forum for collaboration between industry bodies from the historically industry-dominated field of medical AI R&D, researchers investigating pioneering AI in academia, and healthcare professionals to identify key areas in which AI can improve patient care in the UK National Health Service. 

Though government-industry-academia triangles are not new to medical R&D, the UK Government has made such collaborative forums a key means of spurring fresh innovation and digitisation in the UK National Health Service. The promotion of AI-based medical research and technologies is considered a natural accompaniment to the digitisation imperative in UK healthcare policy, through which sets of medical data have proliferated, and the close inclusion in health strategy of industry bodies and academic researchers pioneering medical AI is designed to further support the digitisation of healthcare.   

Decision-making in diagnostics and prognostics is increasingly laboured by large datasets that, though designed to aid and inform the decision-making process, can encumber the decision-making process by overburdening clinicians with data. Automated decision-making holds the key to making data-laden decision-making practicable, and will facilitate clinicians in the rapid identification and triaging of morbidities. 

COVID-19 necessities 

Though over 92% of urgent cancer referrals in recent months have been investigated within 2 weeks, routine diagnostic and therapeutic pathways have been severely curtailed by the pandemic, and patient groups continue to report barriers in accessing routine screening services. 

The funding will expand the various centres’ portfolios of predictive assays that enable the selection and stratification of patients for treatment, which should ultimately speed up patient processing and allow clinicians to operate within COVID-caused capacity constraints. 

Though dedicated COVID-19 treatment centres have been instituted across the UK, as with many other countries, new stresses for treatment capacity are expected over the winter months in the UK through the prospect of a no-deal Brexit, seasonal flu cases and a second wave of COVID-19. Ensuring non-COVID patients are rapidly diagnosed and processed will be imperative to lessen the seasonal stresses, and AI-based innovation is seen as key in future-proofing the health system. 

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