Though the new technology could speed diagnoses of cancers and other skin diseases, it would also greatly reduce dermatopathology biopsy referrals and revenue
What effect would elimination of tissue biopsies have on dermatopathology and clinical laboratory revenue? Quite a lot. Dermatologists alone account for a significant portion of skin biopsies sent to dermatopathologists. Thus, any new technology that can “eliminate the need for invasive skin biopsies” would greatly reduce the number of histopathological referrals and reduce revenue to those practices.
Called Virtual Histology, the technology applies artificial intelligence (AI) deep learning methods to reflectance confocal microscopy (RCM) images “to rapidly perform virtual histology of in vivo, label-free RCM images of normal skin structure, basal cell carcinoma, and melanocytic nevi with pigmented melanocytes, demonstrating similar histological features to traditional histology from the same excised tissue,” the UCLA scientists wrote in their study, published in the Nature peer-reviewed journal Light: Science and Applications.
Could Skin Biopsies be Eliminated?
The UCLA researchers believe their innovative deep learning-enabled imaging framework could possibly circumvent the need for skin biopsies to diagnose skin conditions.
“Here, we present a deep learning-based framework that uses a convolutional neural network to rapidly transform in vivo RCM images of unstained skin into virtually-stained hematoxylin and eosin-like images with microscopic resolution, enabling visualization of the epidermis, dermal-epidermal junction, and superficial dermis layers.
“This application of deep learning-based virtual staining to noninvasive imaging technologies may permit more rapid diagnoses of malignant skin neoplasms and reduce invasive skin biopsies,” the researchers added in their published study.
“This process bypasses several standard steps typically used for diagnosis, including skin biopsy, tissue fixation, processing, sectioning, and histochemical staining,” Aydogan Ozcan, PhD, Chancellor’s Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at UCLA’s Samueli School of Engineering, told Optics.org.
AI and Deep Learning in Dermatopathology
According to the published study, the UCLA team trained their neural network under an adversarial machine learning scheme to transform grayscale RCM images into virtually stained 3D microscopic images of normal skin, basal cell carcinoma, and pigmented melanocytic nevi. The new images displayed similar morphological features to those shown with the widely used hematoxylin and eosin (H&E) staining method.
“In our studies, the virtually stained images showed similar color contrast and spatial features found in traditionally stained microscopic images of biopsied tissue,” Ozcan told Photonics Media. “This approach may allow diagnosticians to see the overall histological features of intact skin without invasive skin biopsies or the time-consuming work of chemical processing and labeling of tissue.”
The framework covers different skin layers, including the epidermis, dermal-epidermis, and superficial dermis layers. It images deeper into tissue without being invasive and can be quickly performed.
“The virtual stain technology can be streamlined to be almost semi real time,” Ozcan told Medical Device + Diagnostic Industry (MD+DI). “You can have the virtual staining ready when the patient is wrapping up. Basically, it can be within a couple of minutes after you’re done with the entire imaging.”
Currently, medical professionals rely on invasive skin biopsies and histopathological evaluations to diagnose skin diseases and cancers. These diagnostic techniques can result in unnecessary biopsies, scarring, multiple patient visits and increased medical costs for patients, insurers, and the healthcare system.
Improving Time to Diagnosis through Digital Pathology
Another advantage of this virtual technology, the UCLA researchers claim, is that it can provide better images than traditional staining methods, which could improve the ability to diagnose pathological skin conditions and help alleviate human error.
“The majority of the time, small laboratories have a lot of problems with consistency because they don’t use the best equipment to cut, process, and stain tissue,” dermatopathologist Philip Scumpia, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor of Dermatology and Dermatopathology at UCLA Health and one of the authors of the research paper, told MD+DI.
“What ends up happening is we get tissue on a histology slide that’s basically unevenly stained, unevenly put on the microscope, and it gets distorted,” he added, noting that this makes it very hard to make a diagnosis.
Scumpia also added that this new technology would allow digital images to be sent directly to the pathologist, which could reduce processing and laboratory times.
“With electronic medical records now and the ability to do digital photography and digital mole mapping, where you can obtain a whole-body imaging of patients, you could imagine you can also use one of these reflectance confocal devices. And you can take that image from there, add it to the EMR with the virtual histology stain, which will make the images more useful,” Scumpia said. “So now, you can track lesions as they develop.
“What’s really exciting too, is that there’s the potential to combine it with other artificial intelligence, other machine learning techniques that can give more information,” Scumpia added. “Using the reflectance confocal microscope, a clinician who might not be as familiar in dermatopathology could take images and send [them] to a practitioner who could give a more expert diagnosis.”
Faster Diagnoses but Reduced Revenue for Dermatopathologists, Clinical Labs
Ozcan noted that there’s still a lot of work to be done in the clinical assessment, validation, and blind testing of their AI-based staining method. But he hopes the technology can be propelled into a useful tool for clinicians.
“I think this is a proof-of-concept work, and we’re very excited to make it move forward with further advances in technology, in the ways that we acquire 3D information [and] train our neural networks for better and faster virtual staining output,” he told MD+DI.
Though this new technology may reduce the need for invasive biopsies and expedite the diagnosis of skin conditions and cancers—thus improving patient outcomes—what affect might it have on dermatopathology practices?
More research and clinical studies are needed before this new technology becomes part of the diagnosis and treatment processes for skin conditions. Nevertheless, should virtual histology become popular and viable, it could greatly impact the amount of skin biopsy referrals to pathologists, dermatopathologists, and clinical laboratories, thus diminishing a great portion of their revenue.