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Bowel cancer diagnosis improved with space and AI tech

Image credit: DT

Technology used to reliably transfer data between the Earth and spacecraft has been adapted by UCL engineers to create a system that can improve detection rates for bowel cancer.

The clunkily named Early Diagnosis Real-Time Healthcare System for Cancer project - dubbed Earth Scan - aims to take advantage of data-crunching and transmitting innovations first developed for controlling satellites in space.

The use of space technology allows the system to be deployed anywhere on Earth, enabling patients to receive a consistent and high level of care regardless of their location. A fast and reliable data connection is essential when controlling a telescope in the depths of space.

The technology developed for this purpose will be used by Earth Scan to link up a cloud-based AI system that can support doctors when identifying cancer in patients. The cloud-based AI is able to identify and characterise polyps by analysing a live colonoscopy video.

The UCL team hopes it will drastically reduce the time it takes to detect and diagnose bowel cancer, which is one of the deadliest forms of cancer in the UK.

It will be funded with a share of £5m from the UK Space Agency to mark the 70th birthday of the NHS.

Science Minister Chris Skidmore said the health service aims to slash cancer deaths by borrowing technological advances from other sectors.

He said: “It’s incredible that artificial intelligence technology that was first developed decades ago and is being used to examine distant planets will now help detect some of the hardest to treat cancers at their earliest stages.

“With bowel cancer the second most common cause of cancer-related deaths, this kind of innovation will be crucial in helping the NHS prevent more than 20,000 cancer-related deaths a year by 2033 - a key aim of our modern Industrial Strategy.”

Peter Mountney, researcher at UCL, said: “We are moving into a new era of healthcare where AI will support doctors to identify and diagnose cancer faster and more effectively.

“The Earth Scan project is an exciting opportunity to use satellite technology to bring this AI support to doctors in real time.

“Real-time support means doctors can make immediate decisions regarding treatment and patients can receive the results of their scan straight away instead of waiting weeks.”

Earlier this month, engineers demonstrated a prototype endoscope that could be manufactured for just £40 that is designed to make cancer screening more affordable in low-to-middle income countries with limited healthcare budgets.

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