School of Computing

News Item

Newcastle experts help African children with cancer

Newcastle experts are helping to increase the survival rates of children with blood cancer in Africa by speeding up their diagnosis.

Computing scientists and medics have joined forces to improve paediatric services at the Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital in Blantyre, Malawi, by developing an Artificial Intelligence-powered digital pathology microscope slide scanner.

The team from Newcastle University and the Great North Children’s Hospital will be able to use the small, but powerful, microscope with an online link to allow pathologists in the North East to quickly confirm a cancer diagnosis from 7,400 miles away.

Image quality

The manual microscope slide scanner - the size of a standard coffee flask - magnifies children’s blood samples 1,000 times and significantly enhances picture quality by highlighting abnormal white blood cells.

The AI-powered system turns a microscope into a manual slide scanner, and Newcastle University experts have developed software so images of blood can be linked to a computer, or even mobile phone, and beamed across the world.

Up until now, the image quality in half the cancer cases in Blantyre have been insufficient to provide a diagnosis and there is a lack of experts in the country, therefore, online access to specialists elsewhere is imperative.

Dr Yuchun Ding, Research Associate at Newcastle University’s School of Computing, constructed the AI-powered system and has set up a fundraising page to get £4,850 to buy the slide scanning device and laptop for the Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital in Malawi.

The fundraising campaign is an extension of the Malawi Telepathology MPathE Project to help connect more pathologists to deprived or rural areas around the world.

Dr Ding said: “Malawi is one of the world’s poorest countries, but despite this, it has a dedicated paediatric oncology service. Yet this is hampered by the fact that there isn’t good technology that can be used for timely diagnosis in the majority of patients.

“While spending our daytime working on cutting-edge scientific research, we have always wanted to share our discoveries with services around the world and this is a great way of doing that.

“We believe that people around the world should have a chance to benefit from the latest technological advances to fight cancer, especially children who have their whole lives ahead of them.

“Compared to other whole scanners that can easily cost £100,000 and more, the equipment that we have costs only a fraction of that and there is no doubt it will be life-saving for African youngsters.

“For many people around the world, when cancer strikes, they are often left without options. In today’s modern world this should not happen.

"Children should not go without proper diagnosis and treatment. Nothing is going to alter in Malawi unless we help to make a change like this.”

Patients’ diagnosis

As many as 28,000 children are admitted to the Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital each year and the paediatric oncology ward has on average 320 patients every 12 months.

The microscope slide scanner will allow hundreds of images to be sent to the Great North Children’s Hospital, at Newcastle’s Royal Victoria Infirmary (RVI), for assessment.

Simon Bailey, Professor of Paediatric Neuro-Oncology, from the Northern Institute for Cancer Research, is one of the RVI’s experts who will view the patients’ images.

He said: “Accurate diagnosis of cancer in children in Blantyre is challenging due to the lack of pathologists and the resultant delay in diagnosis would severely compromise the treatment offered to these children.

“In Newcastle we have set up a low tech image transfer system with associated web data entry, although this has limitations.

“The system that Dr Ding is raising money to purchase will provide high resolution full-slide imaging that will ensure a more accurate diagnosis and the hence best treatment for cancer.”

The experts are heading to the Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital next month to deliver the microscope slide scanner and laptop – but they still need donations to fund the important equipment.

For more information and to donate, please visit: www.gofundme.com/fund-a-digital-microscopic-scanner-for-malawi

Children sitting on flow with toys - former patients at the Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital
Former patients at the Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital

published on: 25 February 2019