Doctors in China turn to AI to help detect cancer

China 24

In China, algorithms are crunching mountains of data, and showing their ability to improve people’s lives. Now artificial intelligence is reporting breakthroughs in detecting cancer.

CGTN’s Ge Yunfei reports.

More than 2.7 million people in China die of cancer every year, killing more than five Chinese people each minute.

Dr. Xu Guoliang is the chief for Department of Endoscopy and Laser of Sun Yat-sen University Cancer Treatment Center. He’s been trying to detect cancer in its earliest stages, which could improve a patient’s chances of survival. Xu is an endoscopy specialist working at one of the largest cancer treatment centers in southern China.

He searches for tumors inside body cavities and hollow organs, like the stomach. The World Health Organization said stomach cancer is a leading cause of death in China, but there aren’t enough Chinese doctors like Xu.

Dr. Xu Guoliang from Sun Yat-sen University Cancer Treatment Center (CGTN photo)

Xu told CGTN that five years ago, there were only about 29,000 qualified endoscopy doctors in China. But according to their estimates, there are 120 million patients that need to do endoscopy each year. That means China has to increase the number of doctors some 50 times to meet that demand. Clearly “that’s almost impossible,” Xu said.

Dr. Xu  has turned to artificial intelligence for help. His hospitals have been working with Internet giant Tencent, hoping to develop an AI clinical diagnostic system called Miying.

According to Xu, each endoscopy examination will produce 48 images that’ll be simultaneously sent to Tencent’s database. The AI system will give feedback in four seconds. Based on a huge pool of data, it’ll suggest which position could be a cancer lesion.

Xu said AI’s accuracy in diagnosing some types of cancer early is as high as 90-percent, and AI’s accuracy is still improving. Patients in China’s first-tier cities may still prefer human doctors at the best hospitals, but for the one billion or so people living in less-developed areas with limited medical resources, AI promises huge benefits.

Zhou Xuan, a senior product director of the Miying AI project of Tencent said, “AI is able to learn from ‘big data.’ That’s what humans can’t do. We hope the system can reach remote areas and grassroots hospitals in China, where patients can get a diagnosis as accurate as the ones in first-class hospitals in big cities.”

The Chinese government is part of a global trend. Last November, it announced plans to build a national platform for AI diagnostic imaging. It’s commitment to AI is a pillar in the future of Chinese medicine.

The U.K. government has said in the next 15 years, AI could prevent more than 20-thousand cancer deaths a year. And U.S. researchers have shown in scanning cell images, that AI can distinguish types of cancer. In most cases, it does so with nearly 100 -percent accuracy.