One of the world’s fastest growing medical laboratory companies in India is using digital pathology systems and AI to replace older diagnostic technologies
Artificial intelligence (AI) is gaining acceptance around the world and use of AI to analyze digital pathology images is expected to be a major disruptor to the profession of anatomic pathology. Internationally, several pathology companies already use AI-powered solutions to diagnose cancer.
One such example is Neuberg Diagnostics, a fast-growing clinical laboratory company in Chennai, India. Neuberg has been using AI to review digital pathology images for several years, according to Chairman and Managing Director GSK Velu, PhD, BPharm.
“We already use AI in our laboratories,” Velu said in an exclusive interview with Dark Daily. “Our main reference laboratories currently use digital pathology systems to support the pathologists and many of them are using AI with these digital pathology systems.
“AI and data analytics tools are being used in other departments too, such as in our wellness department where we use AI for predictive analytics,” he added. “We also use AI in our genomics division, and we are introducing AI into other divisions slowly and steadily.”
Neuberg operates 120 laboratories in an extensive network in India, South Africa, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and now in the US as well.
As has been happening at other anatomic pathology centers around the world, Neuberg has been using digital pathology systems to replace older technologies. “One of our largest labs is our Bangalore Reference Lab,” Velu said. “There, we do not use microscopes for histopathology, and that lab has used digital pathology for routine review of specimens for several years now.
“But because artificial intelligence is still emerging, we can’t rely on AI with all of our digital pathology systems,” he added. “Although, of course, AI is certainly an aid to everything we do with digital pathology.
“For a variety of reasons, the adaptation of artificial intelligence in anatomic pathology is not happening as effectively nor as fast as we would like,” he noted. “So, for now, we need to wait and watch a bit longer, either because adaptation by pathologists is slow, or because AI tools are still a bit of a worry for some pathologists.
Younger Pathologists Adapt Faster to Digital Pathology
One reason could be that conventional pathologists worry about relying completely on AI for any diagnosis, Velu noted. “I’m certain that the more recent generation of pathologists who are now in their 30s, and the new people coming into pathology, will start adapting more quickly to digital pathology and to AI faster than the older generation of pathologists have done.
“The younger pathologists have a greater appreciation for the potential of digital pathology, while the older pathologists don’t want to let go of conventional diagnosis methods,” he added.
“For example, we have not yet seen where pathologists are reviewing breast image scans,” he commented. “But, at the same time, AI has been well-accepted among radiologists who are reviewing breast mammography scans.”
In India and in other markets worldwide, radiologists have adapted AI tools for breast mammography scans to diagnose breast cancer, he noted. “But that’s not happening even among pathologists who are doing cancer screening,” he said.
Velu suggested that another reason for the slow adoption of AI tools in pathology is that these systems are relatively new to the market. “Maybe the AI tools that are used with digital pathology are not as reliable as we hoped they would be, or they are not fully robust at the moment,” he speculated. “That’s why I say it will take some time before the use of AI for diagnosis becomes more widespread among pathologists. So, for now, we must wait until digital pathology and AI tools work together more seamlessly.
Replacing Conventional Pathology Technologies and Methods
“When those two technologies—AI and digital pathology systems—are linked more closely, their use will take hold in a substantial way,” Velu predicted. “When that happens, they are likely to replace conventional pathology methods completely.
“Currently, we are in the early stages of a transformation,” he added. “In our labs, you can see that the transformation is ongoing. We are using digital pathology systems even in our smaller labs. Then, the staff in our smaller labs do the processing of slides to convert them to digital images and send them to our labs in the larger cities. There, the professional staff uses AI to review those digital images and issue reports based on those images.
“Using our digital pathology systems and AI in that way means that we can make that technology available even in smaller towns and villages that have access only to our smaller labs,” he commented.
Velu added that wider use of digital pathology systems could improve the quality of care that pathologists deliver to patients in a significant way, particularly in rural areas. “Here in India, we are not seeing a huge shortage of pathologists, except in rural areas and villages,” he explained. “In those places, we could run short of pathologists.
“That is the reason we are trying to adapt the use of telepathology more widely,” he noted. “To do that, we might have technicians and histologists who will do just processing of slides so that they can send the digital images to our pathologists located in larger cities. Then, those surgical pathologists will review the cases and send the reports out. That’s the model that we are trying to slowly follow here.”
As use of digital pathology images increased, many predicted that specimens would flow from the US to India. This would happen because of the belief that the lower cost of surgical pathology in India would successfully draw business away from pathology groups here in the United States.
However, Neuberg turned the tables on that belief when it announced the opening of its Neuberg Centre for Genomic Medicine (NCGM), a state-of-the-art esoteric and genetic testing laboratory in Raleigh, NC. The NCGM lab is CLIA-certified and Neuberg says it is ready to compete with labs in this country on their home turf.
These are reasons why pathologists and pathology practice administrators in the United States may want to watch how Neuberg Diagnostics continues to develop its use of digital pathology platforms and AI-powered digital image analysis tools throughout its international network of laboratories.
As science learns more about the human genome, new companies are being formed to offer consumers at-home microbiology test kits, a development many microbiologists consider worrisome
Can consumers rely on the accuracy of at-home microbiology tests that promise to give them useful information about their microbiome? That’s just one question being asked by clinical laboratory scientists and microbiologists in response to the proliferation of companies offering such tests.
Advances in gene sequencing technology, new insights into the human microbiome, and more sophisticated software to analyze test data are fueling the growth of companies that want to offer consumers at-home microbiology test kits. And no less an authority than the American Academy of Microbiology (ASM) states in a 2017 report, that knowledge of the microbiome can revolutionize healthcare as “insights acquired from NGS [next-generation sequencing] methods can be exploited to improve our health as individuals and the greater public health.”
The move towards more “precision medicine” in terms of diagnostics and treatments, according to the ASM, is based in part on microbial genomic testing, which when combined with a patient’s medical history, clinical signs, symptoms, and human genomic information, can help “create treatment pathways that are individualized and tailored for each patient.”
However, critics worry about overreach given current limitations in the analysis and diagnosis of microbiome data produced by testing, particularly in connection to the rising number of consumer self-testing services aimed at the general public.
No Science to Back Up Claims of Accuracy for At-Home Microbiology Tests
A recent article from the MIT Technology Review, notes that these at-home microbiology testing services, while exciting, can only offer limited information—despite claims. Companies such as Thryve, for example, offer visitors to their website a $99 gut health kit, which they recommend using four times per year. The goal is to use the data to target regimens of supplements and “correct” problems the testing identifies.
Another company, uBiome, offers physician-ordered and customer-requested test kits that the company suggests can determine risk factors for disease. However, critics suggest science cannot currently back up those claims. Concerns about the value of such consumer self-testing, the legitimacy of recommendations based on “diagnoses,” and basic health privacy are leading to serious concerns within the scientific community.
One example of an at-home microbiology test marketed to consumers is the SmartGut by uBiome (above). It is “a microbiome screening test that uses precision sequencing technology to identify key microorganisms in your gut, both pathogenic and commensal.” (Photo copyright: uBiome.)
1. There is no “gold standard” for microbiome DNA profiling technology or analysis methods at this time; and,
2. Human microbiomes are in her words, “a moving target, changing with age and diet.”
Thus, the best these services can provide, Lieberman argues, is a snapshot of gut microbes at one period of time. Additionally, she claims there is a danger in trying to interpret personal microbiome data. And, Lieberman is not alone in her criticism.
Science Must Be ‘On Guard’ Against Hype about the Usefulness of Microbiome Tests
Martin Blaser, MD, PhD, Director of the Human Microbiome Project at New York University, also criticizes at-home self-tests of microbiomes. In a New York Times article, Blaser points out that the enormous amount of data generated by microbiome testing is “basically uninterpretable” at this time. According to Blaser, scientists can chart the presence, absence, and levels of specific microbiomes and note correlations, but there is no way to know if changes to microbiomes in a particular patient signal disease risk, progression, or development.
The study of microbiomes is still in its nascent stages, so despite there being significant information correlating the presence or absence of specific microbes to diseases, Blaser states that scientists are currently unsure of what that correlation implies. They simply know the correlations exist.
The “gold rush” of companies offering consumers an at-home microbiology test requires skepticism, notes Hanage. He further urges researchers, press officers, and journalists to remain objective. Hanage writes, “Press officers must stop exaggerating results, and journalists must stop swallowing them whole.” Hanage warns that scientists should be on guard against the “buzz around the field” distorting scientific priorities and misleading the public at large. So, while studies of the human microbiome do carry vast potential for medical laboratories and pathologists to change healthcare and healthcare diagnostics, a healthy dose of skepticism is still the best medicine.
However, the distinction between how the two different types of diagnostic tests are intended to be used still confuses many physicians and healthcare professionals
Companion diagnostics are well-known to medical laboratorians. However, the new-breed of complementary diagnostics might not be as familiar. As the pharmaceutical pipeline increasingly becomes filled with test-dependent new drug therapies, medical laboratories and anatomic pathology groups may need to sharpen their understanding of companion and complementary diagnostics to broaden their laboratory test portfolios and keep pace with the growing demand for these new diagnostics.
The FDA defines a companion diagnostic as a “medical device, often an in vitro device, which provides information that is essential for the safe and effective use of a corresponding drug or biological product. The test helps a healthcare professional determine whether a particular therapeutic product’s benefits to patients will outweigh any potential serious side effects or risks.”
Because a companion diagnostic device is “essential for the safe and effective use” of the drug to which it has been assigned, it is identified on the drug’s product label.
The anti-HER2 drug Herceptin, for example, is a commonly prescribed breast-cancer therapy drug that in its various forms comes with one of 11 companion diagnostic devices. As a requirement of Herceptin’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval, the agency requires pathologists to use a companion diagnostic test to confirm a patient’s over expression of HER2 (human epidermal growth factor receptor2) protein before prescribing Herceptin. The other HER2-directed therapies have their own assigned companion diagnostic.
Complementary Diagnostics Is a Growing Opportunity for Clinical Labs
Now, nearly two decades after companion diagnostics first made headlines, pathologists are encountering a new concept—complementary diagnostics. Unlike companion diagnostics, complementary diagnostics aid the therapeutic decision process, but are not required when prescribing the corresponding drug.
In an interview with Dark Daily, Debra Harrsch, President and Chief Executive Officer of Philadelphia-based Brandwidth Solutions, noted that the addition of complementary diagnostics adds a layer of complexity to the diagnostics landscape for pathologists and other healthcare professionals.
“The diagnostics landscape is not only expanding in size and scope, it is also becoming increasingly complex as growth in biomarker– and genomic-based test strategies fuels progress in personalized medicine,” she stated.
Peggy Robinson (left), US Vice President of ANGLE plc, and, Debra Harrsch (right), President and CEO of Brandwidth Solutions in Philadelphia, spoke with Dark Daily on the differences and values of companion versus complementary diagnostics. “The role that companion diagnostics can have in driving personalized medicine is already leaving its mark with drugs such as Herceptin. The impact of complementary diagnostics and how the two types of tests come to share the stage awaits to be seen,” they noted. (Photo copyright: Dark Daily.)
Peggy Robinson, US Vice President of ANGLE plc, a global liquid biopsy diagnostic company, explained that the lack of a regulatory link to a specific testing technology is the critical distinction between a complementary and a companion diagnostic.
“A companion diagnostic is one of the gateways for you to receive a drug,” Robinson stated in the Dark Daily interview. “A complementary diagnostic can aid your physician in helping to determine what level of therapy would be appropriate for you, but it is not required.”
Pairing Clinical Laboratory Tests with Complementary Diagnostics
At that time, Christopher Fikry, MD, then Vice President, Oncology, of Quest Diagnostics (NYSE:DGX), praised the FDA’s introduction of the first complementary diagnostic. He noted in a statement that it would “give physicians greater understanding of treatment expectations with Opdivo and helpful information to communicate to patients.”
Clinical Laboratories Can Add Value to Their Patients’ Healthcare
The challenge for clinical laboratories and pathology groups will be keeping pace with a rapidly expanding catalog of available diagnostic tests. While the number of drugs (two) with FDA-approved complementary diagnostic tests remains small, Peter Keeling, CEO of Diaceutics, a global advisory group for the laboratory, diagnostic, and pharmaceutical industries, predicts that number will be rising.
In a 2016 webinar on companion versus complementary diagnostics, Keeling pointed out that 50% to 90% of products in development through 2020 at the top 10 pharmaceutical companies are test dependent. This highlights the importance of targeted therapies designed to advance the goals of personalized medicine.
Clinical Labs Can Build Out Test Menus with Complementary Diagnostics
“Laboratorians need to understand what type of technologies they are using to employ these diagnostics,” Robinson told Dark Daily. “As laboratory managers build out their test portfolios, they should be looking at the technology and asking, ‘Can I integrate that into my laboratory?’ so that when a new test comes out, they can offer it.”
Meanwhile, healthcare professionals have more work to do to understand the differences between companion versus complementary test labeling. In his webinar, Kelly noted that in a poll of 30 Opdivo/Keytruda prescribers, Diaceutics found:
40% of prescribers surveyed did not understand the differences between the PD-L1 test labels for Keytruda (Pembrolizumab), which requires a companion diagnostic, and Opdivo, which has an associated complementary diagnostic;
60% were unclear about the role of complementary testing; and
50% said their therapy decisions would be impacted if a laboratory used for PD-L1 testing offered only one test.
Harrsch told Dark Daily that “time will tell” whether complementary diagnostics can match the impact of companion diagnostics in improving healthcare outcomes.
Future of Complementary Diagnostics Still Uncertain
“The role companion diagnostics can have in driving personalized medicine is already leaving its mark with drugs such as Herceptin,” she said. “The impact of complementary diagnostics, and how the two types of tests come to share the stage, awaits to be seen.”
As the market for companion and complementary diagnostics expands beyond targeted therapies for oncology, clinical laboratories and pathology groups can position themselves to “add value” to their patients’ journey through the entire healthcare continuum. Robinson believes one key for pathologists going forward will be maintaining a “close working relationship” with client physicians in order to plan for future test offerings.
Using tumor tissue, Strata’s gene test sequences DNA and RNA to identify patients with certain gene mutations. This information is used to determine which cancer medications would be best for each patient. Patients are then referred to the appropriate pharmaceutical company for drug therapy and, potentially, for customized clinical trials.
Strata states on their website that their goal is to “dramatically expand late-stage cancer patients’ access to tumor sequencing and precision medicine trials, and to accelerate the approval and availability of breakthrough cancer medicines.” (more…)