The University of Sheffield and Cancer Research UK have teamed up to develop artificial intelligence which will help predict the risk of mouth cancer.

The study will look at the use of machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) to assist pathologists in spotting the disease, which has increased by 60% in the last 10 years.

Samples of oral epithelial dysplasia (OED), pre-cancerous changes that can develop into cancer, along with five years of follow up data will be used to train AI algorithms.

Currently, doctors must predict the likelihood of OED developing into cancer by assessing a patient’s biopsy on 15 different criteria to establish a score.

This score then determines whether action is needed and what treatment pathway should be taken.

But there are often huge variations in how patients with similar biopsy results are treated, researchers said. For example, one patient may be advised to undergo surgery and intensive treatment, while another patient may be monitored for further changes.

Dr Ali Khurram, senior clinical lecturer at the University of Sheffield’s School of Clinical Dentistry, said: “The precise grading of OED is a huge diagnostic challenge, even for experienced pathologists, as it is so subjective.

“Correct grading is vital in early oral cancer detection to inform treatment decisions, enabling a surgeon to determine whether a lesion should be monitored or surgically removed.

“Machine learning and AI can aid tissue diagnostics by removing subjectivity, using automation and quantification to guide diagnosis and treatment. Until now this hasn’t been investigated, but AI has the potential to revolutionise oral cancer diagnosis and management by ensuring accuracy, consistency and objectivity.”

The algorithms developed will aid pathologists in their assessment of biopsies, helping them to make a more informed and unbiased decision about the grading of the cells and the patient’s treatment pathway.

The proposed algorithms have a strong potential to be rapidly deployed as an aid to clinical and diagnostic practice worldwide, researchers said.

“People often feel threatened by AI, however rather than replacing a doctor’s expertise, exceptionally high-level of training and experience, the technology can help to assist their decision-making and compliment their skills,” Dr Khurram added.

“This will help them to give a more accurate assessment and enable them to recommend the most beneficial treatment pathway for individual patients which will hope will help to improve survival rates.”