Original Research

Comparing Artificial Intelligence Platforms for Histopathologic Cancer Diagnosis

Two machine learning platforms were successfully used to provide diagnostic guidance in the differentiation between common cancer conditions in veteran populations.

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Artificial intelligence (AI), first described in 1956, encompasses the field of computer science in which machines are trained to learn from experience. The term was popularized by the 1956 Dartmouth College Summer Research Project on Artificial Intelligence.1 The field of AI is rapidly growing and has the potential to affect many aspects of our lives. The emerging importance of AI is demonstrated by a February 2019 executive order that launched the American AI Initiative, allocating resources and funding for AI development.2 The executive order stresses the potential impact of AI in the health care field, including its potential utility to diagnose disease. Federal agencies were directed to invest in AI research and development to promote rapid breakthroughs in AI technology that may impact multiple areas of society.

Machine learning (ML), a subset of AI, was defined in 1959 by Arthur Samuel and is achieved by employing mathematic models to compute sample data sets.3 Originating from statistical linear models, neural networks were conceived to accomplish these tasks.4 These pioneering scientific achievements led to recent developments of deep neural networks. These models are developed to recognize patterns and achieve complex computational tasks within a matter of minutes, often far exceeding human ability.5 ML can increase efficiency with decreased computation time, high precision, and recall when compared with that of human decision making.6

ML has the potential for numerous applications in the health care field.7-9 One promising application is in the field of anatomic pathology. ML allows representative images to be used to train a computer to recognize patterns from labeled photographs. Based on a set of images selected to represent a specific tissue or disease process, the computer can be trained to evaluate and recognize new and unique images from patients and render a diagnosis.10 Prior to modern ML models, users would have to import many thousands of training images to produce algorithms that could recognize patterns with high accuracy. Modern ML algorithms allow for a model known as transfer learning, such that far fewer images are required for training.11-13

Two novel ML platforms available for public use are offered through Google (Mountain View, CA) and Apple (Cupertino, CA).14,15 They each offer a user-friendly interface with minimal experience required in computer science. Google AutoML uses ML via cloud services to store and retrieve data with ease. No coding knowledge is required. The Apple Create ML Module provides computer-based ML, requiring only a few lines of code.

The Veterans Health Administration (VHA) is the largest single health care system in the US, and nearly 50 000 cancer cases are diagnosed at the VHA annually.16 Cancers of the lung and colon are among the most common sources of invasive cancer and are the 2 most common causes of cancer deaths in America.16 We have previously reported using Apple ML in detecting non-small cell lung cancers (NSCLCs), including adenocarcinomas and squamous cell carcinomas (SCCs); and colon cancers with accuracy.17,18 In the present study, we expand on these findings by comparing Apple and Google ML platforms in a variety of common pathologic scenarios in veteran patients. Using limited training data, both programs are compared for precision and recall in differentiating conditions involving lung and colon pathology.

In the first 4 experiments, we evaluated the ability of the platforms to differentiate normal lung tissue from cancerous lung tissue, to distinguish lung adenocarcinoma from SCC, and to differentiate colon adenocarcinoma from normal colon tissue. Next, cases of colon adenocarcinoma were assessed to determine whether the presence or absence of the KRAS proto-oncogene could be determined histologically using the AI platforms. KRAS is found in a variety of cancers, including about 40% of colon adenocarcinomas.19 For colon cancers, the presence or absence of the mutation in KRAS has important implications for patients as it determines whether the tumor will respond to specific chemotherapy agents.20 The presence of the KRAS gene is currently determined by complex molecular testing of tumor tissue.21 However, we assessed the potential of ML to determine whether the mutation is present by computerized morphologic analysis alone. Our last experiment examined the ability of the Apple and Google platforms to differentiate between adenocarcinomas of lung origin vs colon origin. This has potential utility in determining the site of origin of metastatic carcinoma.22

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