Medical Moment: Using AI to detect lung cancer early

Published: Mar. 23, 2023 at 6:08 PM EDT
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(WNDU) - For both men and women, lung cancer is the second-most common cancer in the U.S.

127,000 people will die from it this year. It’s often caught in a later stage, so when it comes to detection, the earlier, the better!

Artificial intelligence might help even more cases be caught early.

Steven Porter is his family’s historian, curating old photos and tracing his roots on genealogy websites. Porter says there’s no history of cancer in his family, but as a former smoker, his doctor advised him to get screened.

“In 2022, I went, and that’s when they found the solid nodule. They took enough of it during the biopsy that they knew had it all,” Porter recalled.

Porter knows he’s lucky, and he’s in the minority. Only 6% of all Americans eligible for lung cancer screening with a low-dose CT scan actually get it done. But now, there’s a new program to detect tiny lung spots, or nodules, that might otherwise go undetected.

Ohio State researchers and clinicians have created a system to evaluate all CT scans, not just those of lung cancer patients.

“If they’ve had a heart attack, if they’ve had a motor vehicle or accident, if they’ve had pneumonia, and they undergo a CT scan,” said Jasleen Pannu, MD, an interventional pulmonologist at Ohio State Wexner Medical Center.

The team uses automated natural language processing tools such as artificial intelligence to evaluate written radiology results.

“If there is a radiologist that has reported a lung nodule of a certain size, these can be flagged and followed up,” Dr. Pannu said.

Dr. Pannu says when nodules are detected unexpectedly, the patient’s CT scan is further evaluated so they won’t fall through the cracks. Steven Porter’s screening was scheduled, but either way, he knows the importance of catching cancer early.

“I was feeling fine,” Porter said. “I wouldn’t have gone, and, you know, next year, it may have been too late.”

Dr. Pannu says at Ohio State alone, 1,000 new, early-stage cancers could be caught by screening lung nodules found unexpectedly. She says when patients come into the hospital for emergency treatment and undergo CT scans, tiny nodules can be overlooked because the medical team is focused on the emergency at hand.