MIT’s deep learning artificial intelligence algorithm demonstrates how similar new technologies and smartphones can be combined to give dermatologists and dermatopathologists valuable new ways to diagnose skin cancer from digital images

Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and other Boston-area research institutions have developed an artificial intelligence (AI) algorithm that detects melanoma in wide-field images of skin lesions taken on smartphones. And its use could affect how dermatologists and dermatopathologists diagnose cancer.

The study, published in Science Translational Medicine, titled, “Using Deep Learning for Dermatologist-Level Detection of Suspicious Pigmented Skin Lesions from Wide-Field Images,” demonstrates that even a common device like a smartphone can be a valuable resource in the detection of disease.

According to an MIT press release, “The paper describes the development of an SPL [Suspicious Pigmented Lesion] analysis system using DCNNs [Deep Convolutional Neural Networks] to more quickly and efficiently identify skin lesions that require more investigation, screenings that can be done during routine primary care visits, or even by the patients themselves. The system utilized DCNNs to optimize the identification and classification of SPLs in wide-field images.”

The MIT scientists believe their AI analysis system could aid dermatologists, dermatopathologists, and clinical laboratories detect melanoma, a deadly form of skin cancer, in its early stages using smartphones at the point-of-care.  

Luis Soenksen, PhD

“Our research suggests that systems leveraging computer vision and deep neural networks, quantifying such common signs, can achieve comparable accuracy to expert dermatologists,” said Luis Soenksen, PhD (above), Venture Builder in Artificial Intelligence and Healthcare at MIT and first author of the study in an MIT press release. “We hope our research revitalizes the desire to deliver more efficient dermatological screenings in primary care settings to drive adequate referrals.” The MIT study demonstrates that dermatologists, dermatopathologists, and clinical laboratories can benefit from using common technologies like smartphones in the diagnosis of disease. (Photo copyright: Wyss Institute Harvard University.)

Improving Melanoma Treatment and Patient Outcomes

Melanoma develops when pigment-producing cells called melanocytes start to grow out of control. The cancer has traditionally been diagnosed through visual inspection of SPLs by physicians in medical settings. Early-stage identification of SPLs can drastically improve the prognosis for patients and significantly reduce treatment costs. It is common to biopsy many lesions to ensure that every case of melanoma can be diagnosed as early as possible, thus contributing to better patient outcomes.

“Early detection of SPLs can save lives. However, the current capacity of medical systems to provide comprehensive skin screenings at scale are still lacking,” said Luis Soenksen, PhD, Venture Builder in Artificial Intelligence and Healthcare at MIT and first author of the study in the MIT press release.

The researchers trained their AI system by using 20,388 wide-field images from 133 patients at the Gregorio Marañón General University Hospital in Madrid, as well as publicly available images. The collected photographs were taken with a variety of ordinary smartphone cameras that are easily obtainable by consumers.

They taught the deep learning algorithm to examine various features of skin lesions such as size, circularity, and intensity. Dermatologists working with the researchers also visually classified the lesions for comparison.

Smartphone image of pigmented skin lesions

When the algorithm is “shown” a wide-field image like that above taken with a smartphone, it uses deep convolutional neural networks to analyze individual pigmented lesions and screen for early-stage melanoma. The algorithm then marks suspicious images as either yellow (meaning further inspection should be considered) or red (indicating that further inspection and/or referral to a dermatologist is required). Using this tool, dermatopathologists may be able to diagnose skin cancer and excise it in-office long before it becomes deadly. (Photo copyright: MIT.)

“Our system achieved more than 90.3% sensitivity (95% confidence interval, 90 to 90.6) and 89.9% specificity (89.6 to 90.2%) in distinguishing SPLs from nonsuspicious lesions, skin, and complex backgrounds, avoiding the need for cumbersome individual lesion imaging,” the MIT researchers noted in their Science Translational Medicine paper.

In addition, the algorithm agreed with the consensus of experienced dermatologists 88% of the time and concurred with the opinions of individual dermatologists 86% of the time, Medgadget reported.

Modern Imaging Technologies Will Advance Diagnosis of Disease

According to the American Cancer Society, about 106,110 new cases of melanoma will be diagnosed in the United States in 2021. Approximately 7,180 people are expected to die of the disease this year. Melanoma is less common than other types of skin cancer but more dangerous as it’s more likely to spread to other parts of the body if not detected and treated early.

More research is needed to substantiate the effectiveness and accuracy of this new tool before it could be used in clinical settings. However, the early research looks promising and smartphone camera technology is constantly improving. Higher resolutions would further advance development of this type of diagnostic tool.

In addition, MIT’s algorithm enables in situ examination and possible diagnosis of cancer. Therefore, a smartphone so equipped could enable a dermatologist to diagnose and excise cancerous tissue in a single visit, without the need for biopsies to be sent to a dermatopathologist.

Currently, dermatologists refer a lot of skin biopsies to dermapathologists and anatomic pathology laboratories. An accurate diagnostic tool that uses modern smartphones to characterize suspicious skin lesions could become quite popular with dermatologists and affect the flow of referrals to medical laboratories.

JP Schlingman

Related Information:

Software Spots Suspicious Skin Lesions on Smartphone Photos

An Artificial Intelligence Tool That Can Help Detect Melanoma

Using Deep Learning for Dermatologist-level Detection of Suspicious Pigmented Skin Lesions from Wide-field Images