A new study provides a fresh example of machine learning as an important diagnostic tool.

Artificial intelligence (AI) has outperformed doctors at detecting breast cancer in a new study that will further jangle the nerves of medicos, already skittish in the face of a technology whose march into medicine seems unstoppable.

The study, led by Babak Ehteshami Bejnordi at Radboud University Medical Centre in the Netherlands, reported the results of the Cancer Metastases in Lymph Nodes Challenge (also known as CAMELYON16), a competition that ran for the 12 months to November 2016.

CAMELYON16 threw down the gauntlet to researchers, who had to come up with an automated way of detecting cancer cells in lymph node biopsies from women with breast cancer.

During surgery doctors inject a radioactive tracer and blue dye into breast tissue near the tumour, which get funnelled by the lymphatic system to lymph nodes in the armpit.

Doctors can then scan the lymph nodes with a Geiger counter, and the naked eye, to find the “hot” blue-coloured node, also called the sentinel node, which is the one the cancer will spread to first.

In what is a critical procedure for the woman concerned, the node is removed, sectioned, stained, and examined by pathologists under a microscope.

No cancer is, of course, good. But cancer cells in the sentinel node indicate spread, and can mean radiotherapy or further surgery, such as a mastectomy, or removal of underarm lymph nodes, which can leave women with a swollen and sometimes useless arm.

It’s an area where pathologists have room for improvement.

Read the full article in Cosmos magazine here