Distinguishing lung cancer from head and neck cancers using AI

Distinguishing lung cancer from head and neck cancers using AI


Researchers have successfully solved a longstanding problem in the diagnosis of head and neck cancers. The researchers used artificial intelligence to develop a new classification method which identifies the primary origins of cancerous tissue based on chemical DNA changes. The potential for introduction into routine medical practice is currently being tested. Results from this research have been published in Science Translational Medicine*.

Every year, more than 17,000 people in Germany are diagnosed with head and neck cancers. These include cancers of the oral cavity, larynx and nose, but can also affect other areas of the head and neck. Some head and neck cancer patients will also develop lung cancer. "In the large majority of cases, it is impossible to determine whether these represent pulmonary metastases of the patient's head and neck cancer or a second primary cancer, i.e. primary lung cancer," explains the co-lead of the study. "This distinction is hugely important in the treatment of people affected by these cancers," emphasizes co-lead, adding: "While surgery may provide a cure in patients with localized lung cancers, patients with metastatic head and neck cancers fare significantly worse in terms of survival and will require treatments such as chemoradiotherapy."

When trying to distinguish between metastases and a second primary tumor, pathologists will usually use established techniques such as analyzing the cancer's microstructure and detecting characteristic proteins in the tissue. However, due to the marked similarities between head and neck cancers and lung cancers in this regard, these tests are usually inconclusive. "In order to solve this problem, we tested tissue samples for a specific chemical alteration known as DNA methylation," explains another author and adds: "We know from earlier studies that DNA methylation patterns in cancer cells are highly dependent on the organ in which the cancer originated."

The research group employed artificial intelligence-based methods to render this information useful in practice. The researchers used DNA methylation data from several hundred head and neck and lung cancers in order to train a deep neural network to distinguish between the two types of cancer. "Our neural network is now able to distinguish between lung cancers and head and neck cancer metastases in the majority of cases, achieving an accuracy of over 99 percent," emphasizes the co-lead and continues: "To ensure that patients with head and neck cancers and additional lung cancers will benefit from the results of our study as quickly as possible, we are currently in the process of testing the implementation of this diagnostic method in routine practice. This will include a prospective validation study to ensure that the new method can be made available to all affected patients."

The artificial neural network that correctly classified 96.4% of the cases in a validation cohort of 279 patients with HNSC and LUSC as well as normal lung controls, outperforming support vector machines (95.7%) and random forests (87.8%). Prediction accuracies of more than 99% were achieved for 92.1% (neural network), 90% (support vector machine), and 43% (random forest) of these cases by applying thresholds to the resulting probability scores and excluding samples with low confidence.

As independent clinical validation of the approach, the authors analyzed a series of 51 patients with a history of HNSC and a second lung tumor, demonstrating the correct classifications based on clinicopathological properties.

https://www.charite.de/en/service/press_reports/artikel/detail/machine_learning_improves_the_diagnosis_of_patients_with_head_and_neck_cancers/

https://stm.sciencemag.org/content/11/509/eaaw8513

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