AI-driven medical imaging may help fight against rectal cancer

Building on its successes in applying artificial intelligence to medical imaging to enhance treatment of other diseases, a Case Western Reserve University-led team next will test its approach with rectal cancer patients.

Specifically, the researchers hope to provide reliable guidance regarding whether patients need to have surgery as part of their treatment.

Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in men and women in the United States, excluding skin cancer, and includes both colon cancer and cancers in the rectum.

The American Cancer Society estimates there will be more than 45,000 new cases of rectal cancer and more than twice as many new colon cancer cases in 2021.

But the Case Western Reserve researchers say clinicians don’t have a reliable way to predict which rectal cancer patients would respond favorably to treatments such as chemotherapy or radiation, so most patients have to undergo invasive surgery to remove the rectum and surrounding tissue.

“In too many cases, patients are being overtreated,” said lead researcher Satish Viswanath, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering who is leading the work as a member of the Center for Computational Imaging and Personalized Diagnostics (CCIPD). “Instead, if our AI technology is successful, we could tell the clinician right up front-;based on a routine MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan if a patient will do well with only chemoradiation and then can be observed, without having this serious surgery.”

Working in collaboration with physicians at Cleveland Clinic, University Hospitals and the Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center, the Case Western Reserve team will apply AI techniques to thousands of digitized images from the medical institutions.

The work is supported by a three-year, $755,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Defense’s Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs.

Other research has reported that up to 30% of people diagnosed with rectal cancer have surgery they didn’t need, Viswanath said, adding that it is often a “surgery that is costly, both financially and in the way it often affects the daily life of the patient afterward.”