Artificial intelligence can help doctors better predict the risk of patients developing oral cancer, new research has revealed.

The pioneering study, from the University of Sheffield, is examining the use of machine learning and AI to assist pathologists and improve the early detection of oral cancer. 

The work is particularly important given that the rate of people being diagnosed with oral cancers including mouth, tongue, tonsil and oropharyngeal cancer, has increased by almost 60% in the last 10 years.

Evidence suggests tobacco and alcohol consumption, viruses, old age as well as not eating enough fruit and vegetables can increase the risk of developing the disease. Oral cancer is often detected late which means that the patient survival rates are poor.

Currently, doctors must predict the likelihood of pre-cancerous changes, known as oral epithelial dysplasia (OED), developing into cancer by assessing a patient’s biopsy on 15 different criteria to establish a score. This score then determines whether action is needed and what treatment pathway should be taken.

Dr Ali Khurram, Senior Clinical Lecturer at the University of Sheffield’s School of Clinical Dentistry, said: “The precise grading of OED is a huge diagnostic challenge, even for experienced pathologists, as it is so subjective. At the moment a biopsy may be graded differently by different pathologists, the same pathologist may even grade the same biopsy differently on a different day.”

For example, one patient may be advised to undergo surgery and intensive treatment, while another patient may be monitored for further changes.

Dr Khurram added: “Machine learning and AI can aid tissue diagnostics by removing subjectivity, using automation and quantification to guide diagnosis and treatment. Until now this hasn’t been investigated, but AI has the potential to revolutionise oral cancer diagnosis and management by ensuring accuracy, consistency and objectivity.”

Dr Khurram said people often feel threatened by AI, however rather than replacing a doctor’s expertise, exceptionally high-level of training and experience, the technology can help to assist their decision-making and compliment their skills.

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