Stressed woman consulting with a doctor

Pilot scheme using AI could transform cervical cancer screening

Image credit: Noipornpan/Dreamstime

A hospital in Scotland is piloting technology using artificial intelligence (AI) and advanced imaging in the hope that it will improve the early diagnosis of cervical cancer.

University Hospital Monklands in Airdrie said it has become the first hospital in the UK and one of the first in the world to pilot the technology as part of its cervical screening programme.

According to health experts, the new technology could help to ensure earlier detection of pre-cancerous cells and cancer cells and has the potential to save lives.

The pilot is using a digital cytology system, the Genius Digital Diagnostics System, from women’s health company Hologic. This will create digital images of cervical smear slides from samples that have tested positive for human papilloma virus (HPV).

Screeners can rapidly review these images of test slides using an advanced algorithm, which assesses the cervical cells in the sample and provides the screener with an image gallery of the most diagnostically relevant cells. This helps medical experts more rapidly identify and accurately diagnose abnormalities, as they have fewer cells to analyse.

Allan Wilson, a consultant biomedical scientist at NHS Lanarkshire, who is leading the pilot, said: “Looking for abnormal cells is like trying to find a needle in a haystack because sometimes there are only around 50 abnormal cervical cells in a sample that may contain 15,000 normal cells.

“This pilot with Hologic has shown how digital cytology can revolutionise our analysis process in our cervical screening programme.”

 Allan Wilson, Consultant Biomedical Scientist at NHS Lanarkshire

Consultant biomedical scientist Allan Wilson is leading the first UK pilot using digital cytology in cervical cancer screening.

Image credit: Stewart Attwood/NHS Lanarkshire

According to Wilson, preliminary results from the pilot are promising, and the team at the hospital has increased capacity by around 25 per cent in slide assessment and improved analysis turnaround times.

The pilot has also allowed for screeners to dedicate more time to training on the latest technologies and dealing with difficult-to-diagnose cases.

“We are now undertaking a retrospective study, using the digital cytology system to test its performance against previous known results,” he explained. “This will then provide the clinical data to make a recommendation on the use of digital cytology in the cervical screening programme in Scotland.”

Wilson hopes that through AI and digital diagnostics, they have the potential to improve outcomes for women not only in Scotland but around the world.

In the UK, over 3,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year, with six women diagnosed in Scotland every week, according to data from Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust.

Samantha Dixon, chief executive of Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, said: “Catching cervical cell changes means doctors can treat patients to prevent them from developing into cervical cancer.

“The earlier we diagnose them; the less invasive treatment might be. Anything that improves or speeds up this process, which could improve, outcomes for women and people with a cervix is a hugely positive thing which we want to see explored fully.”

Tim Simpson, general manager of Hologic UK & Ireland, said: “Digital cytology has a key role to play in ensuring experts pick up pre-cancerous cells early and treated so fewer women develop cervical cancer. Our goal is to help create a world where no woman dies from cervical cancer.”

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