Using AI technology to benefit lung cancer patients during the COVID-19 pandemic

15 May 2020

The NIHR BRC at The Royal Marsden and the ICR, will be supporting an innovative new study at The Royal Marsden. 

Funded by The Royal Marsden Cancer Charity, researchers are investigating how they can utilise the latest technology in artificial intelligence (AI) to provide better care and treatments for cancer patients during the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID-19 is a serious viral infection that can affect people of all ages but is likely to impact cancer patients differently who are at increased risk of developing the virus and more vulnerable due to their weakened immune systems.  Lung cancer is one of the most common cancers in the UK and worldwide, with around 47,000 people diagnosed in the UK every year. This group of patients are particularly vulnerable to the virus as it is known to affect and severely impact the respiratory system.

Dr Richard Lee, Consultant Physician in Respiratory Medicine and Early Diagnosis, who is funded by The Royal Marsden Cancer Charity, is leading a team at The Royal Marsden, The Institute of Cancer Research, London, (ICR) and NHS Trusts across the UK on this research who have already been carrying out work in using artificial intelligence as a tool to help early diagnosis of lung cancer.

Researchers are aiming to use AI tools to analyse scans from cancer patients with the results then helping clinicians to balance and prioritise between targeting treatment for the infection and targeting cancer treatment.  Lung cancer is often treated by immunotherapy, which has been established as a key therapy for this condition. However, a key challenge which researchers have identified during the COVID-19 pandemic is that it can be difficult to distinguish symptoms of immunotherapy side effects from the virus and other infections such as infective pneumonia as these can all often present in a similar way. These side effects might include cough, breathlessness and changes of CT scan imaging. An additional part of this study will be to diagnose subtle changes of lung cancer recurrence earlier so that it might be treated more effectively.

Dr Richard Lee said:

“A lot of the work we do is using AI approaches to CT scan images to identify subtle changes in patients which might help us to understand why one group of patients behave in a certain way. By using AI technology in this new research during the COVID-19 era, we are aiming to identify to what extent these changes are due to Coronavirus or if they are being caused by side effects from treatment. Being able to distinguish between infections and side effects will give us crucial information which is needed to help clinicians treat patients in the best possible way and improve patient outcomes. 

“Unlike a traditional trial, we’ll be using CT scan images that already exist of cancer patients who have and haven’t tested positive for COVID-19. The advantage to having the data ready to use is that we should be able to fast track our research, enabling us to gather results quickly and effectively which will directly benefit cancer patients and improve their quality of life at this challenging time.”

The Royal Marsden and ICR have launched several critical research studies such as this at unprecedented speed, with The Royal Marsden Cancer Charity needing to raise over £500,000 over the coming weeks to ensure support for the research studies can continue.

Professor David Cunningham, Consultant Medical Oncologist at The Royal Marsden and Director of the NIHR Biomedical Research Centre at The Royal Marsden and The Institute of Cancer Research, London, said: “We are uniquely placed to look at COVID-19 in a cancer setting, investigating the pandemic’s impact across a wide range of patients. These trials call upon our multidisciplinary expertise in areas such as systemic therapies, radiotherapy, circulating tumour DNA which is detectable in blood tests, surgery and holistic care.”

“Teams have been working at pace to establish studies that adhere to our usual rigorous protocol; each will have varying durations, with a focus on immediate impact through to longer term understanding of this novel virus. Importantly, with commercial, NHS and academic partners across the country, and thanks to fundraising from The Royal Marsden Cancer Charity and support from The NIHR Biomedical Research Centre we hope this research will have a national and international impact.”

Find out more about other COVID-19 research here