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Identifying Skin Cancer through AI

Thursday 05 November 2020

Identifying skin cancers and melanoma through Artificial Intelligence - Artificial Intelligence and deep imaging phenotypes

As a biostatistician, Dr Brigid Betz-Stablein's work for the University of Queensland's Dermatology Research Centre (DRC) keeps her busy across multiple research projects as the DRC works towards its aim - a world without melanoma.

Taking up most of the researcher's focus at present is the data involved in the VECTRA Whole Body 360 3D imaging system that allows clinicians to monitor patients, which the team at DRC believes can be a game-changer for melanoma and skin cancer rates.

"We've got a new piece of technology which is a total body scanner, it takes 92 images in seconds and then stitches all these images to make a 3D body avatar.

"The avatar comes up on a screen and the clinician is able assess the high resolution image of the person, zooming in on any specific lesions or abnormalities they see, which gives them a really good view of what's happening across the total skin surface," Dr Betz-Stablein said.

Biostatistician, Dr Brigid Betz-Stablein

"Compared to traditionally where the clinician would take individual images of each lesion that they are interested in following, now we get to see the whole body surface so you can go back and look over time to see any changes, even in the areas that you weren't specifically monitoring.

"The main thing we are doing with the VECTRA Imaging System at the moment, with all the tests we're doing we are validating the technology, to make sure that it's actually going to contribute and work efficiently once we add in the artificial intelligence and then it can be used in a teledermatology situation."

Brigid said the team is confident the VECTRA Imaging System and the artificial intelligence the team is building into the project can save lives, which is crucially important with Queensland boasting the unenviable title of 'melanoma capital of the world'.

VECTRA Whole Body 360 3D Imaging System

Dr Betz-Stablein is playing a key role in the team's current work, which sees them building artificial intelligence that can automatically count the number of moles and quantify the level of sun damage on a patient, helping the team eventually be able to provide an automated calculation of risk to patient based on their total skin surface, or what the DRC calls a deep imaging phenotype. A phenotype is a set of observable characteristics in a patient resulting from the interaction of their genes with the environment.

"The earlier we can detect melanoma the better; I think one thing that we are looking at with these new machines is if we can use them to screen those who are at really high risk of melanoma.

"If we can have an automated phenotype that identifies this high risk, we can combine it with the clinical data and the genetic data, but once we have that we can then monitor these people a lot more frequently and it's a lot faster using these machines, so it's freeing up more clinician time," she said.

Having lost her father to lymphedema, Dr Betz-Stablein is passionate about working hard to find medical breakthroughs via medical science and research and the scope her work in the field has to help others.

"It's definitely a driving factor having a family connection, but these days everybody knows someone who has lost the fight to cancer, so I think it's always been a big driving factor for me; I've always enjoyed the medical research and the applied side of statistics because you can see the difference you're making," she said.

As a biostatistician, Dr Betz-said working at Translational Research Institute at the PA Hospital campus is a unique opportunity for a medical researcher, allowing her and her colleagues to work hand in hand with a clinical research facility, speak with staff and work directly with patients to ensure everything being done is at the standard required for medical research.

UQ Dermatology Team

Dr Betz-Stablein said continued funding from the PA Research Foundation has been critical to the strides the DRC is making towards reducing melanoma rates.

"Funding from the PA Research Foundation means we can do more studies and look at more participants. There is a lot of variation in the population, so one of our studies we look at the general population and in another study we look at the high-risk population. It is important that we understand different datasets so that we can recognize the normal variation in the general population to help identify those people that are at high risk," She said.

"Queensland, they term it the skin cancer capital of the world, it's just a perfect place to do this research because we can really have an impact.

"I think it's pretty broadly known that there is a shortage of funding in research and without people donating we just wouldn't be able to do the work we do; the government has limited resources, so the extra money that we can get from people making donations, it's invaluable.

"It's really encouraging as well for us as researchers because we know that someone else is valuing what we're doing."

Dr Betz-Stablein said with the VECTRA Imaging System and other work done by the DRC having the potential to help people in regional and rural areas as well as the cities, she is grateful to anyone who has donated to the PA Research Foundation.

"The donations they are making are literally contributing to the future of medical care for people, for their children, their grandchildren," she said.

"This is going to help so many other people and it has a long term effect which is probably not something they are necessarily thinking of, but when you're donating to medical research it's not just helping now, it's helping all the future generations that come."

Donate to support the research of the University of Queensland's Dermatology Research Centre here.