Mayo, Google want to speed radiation therapy planning with AI


Mayo Clinic and Google Health on Wednesday launched a joint research project to study whether artificial intelligence can automate aspects of radiation therapy planning.

Radiation therapy is common cancer treatment that involves using X-ray, proton or other energy beams to kill cancer cells. A critical part of planning for the therapy is contouring, or segmenting healthy tissue and organs from nearby tumors. Mayo and Google officials think contouring could be helped with AI.

Today, that process of identifying and differentiating healthy and cancerous areas is largely manual or “semi-automated,” and can take six-plus hours for complex cases, according to Dr. Nadia Laack, chair of Mayo’s radiation oncology department in Rochester, Minn., and one of the principal investigators on the research project.

When planning for a case that involves using radiation therapy on a patient’s head, for example, a radiation oncologist would draw detailed lines on medical scans around a patient’s eyes and spinal cord to ensure radiation beams avoid those areas.

“If organs are not properly identified, the radiation plan may not protect these critical structures or adequately treat the tumor,” said Chris Beltran, chair of Mayo’s division of medical physics in Florida and another one of the principle investigators on the project, in a statement.

By applying AI to automate parts of the contouring process, researchers at Mayo and Google Health hope their research will one day allow care teams to generate radiation dose plans that better protect patients’ healthy tissue and organs, treat tumors in a more targeted way and reduce treatment planning times, as well as overall decreasing variability.

The first step of the project will involve developing and validating an algorithm—using de-identified patient data—to assist physicians in contouring, as well as developing associated dosage and treatment plans for patients undergoing radiation therapy. The project will focus on treatment for head and neck cancers.

Part of the first research phase will also involve studying how the AI system would be best deployed in clinical practice to “support physicians, help reduce treatment planning time and improve the efficiency of radiotherapy,” wrote Dr. Cian Hughes, an informatics lead at Google Health, in a blog post announcing the partnership.

“Waiting for a radiotherapy treatment plan can be an agonizing experience for cancer patients, and we hope this research will eventually support a faster planning process and potentially help patients to access treatment sooner,” he wrote.

That said, the technology won’t be used in clinical practice yet since it’s being researched, according to Hughes.

Mayo radiation oncologists, physicians and other radiation therapy experts will work with teams at Google Health who have researched AI and medical imaging. In 2018, researchers from Google and the University College London Hospitals published a study on scientific preprint website illustrating how their AI system could segment medical scans of patients with head and neck cancers.

Mayo’s research project with Google is part of a 10-year partnership that the organizations announced in September of last year, which includes data storage and innovation projects.

Mayo officials have stressed that the health system will control access to patient data under that 10-year partnership; however, they may authorize partners like Google to use data as part of specific projects.

Google has made numerous moves into the healthcare market in recent years, many of which have entangled the company in controversies related to privacy and concerns over data access.

That’s included the company’s involvement with an online COVID-19 screener launched by one of its sister companies, as well as a massive data-sharing partnership with St. Louis-based hospital giant Ascension. Most recently, Google invested $100 million into telemedicine company Amwell.

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