Press release

Artificial intelligence to help diagnose skin cancers

Published on 8 September 2020

Researchers and clinicians from the University of Dundee and NHS Tayside hope to develop technology capable of diagnosing skin cancer after benefitting from a major UK Government investment in artificial intelligence.

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Researchers and clinicians from the University of Dundee and NHS Tayside hope to develop technology capable of diagnosing skin cancer after benefitting from a major UK Government investment in artificial intelligence.

The Dundee collaboration has received £150,000 as part of the £50 million Artificial Intelligence in Health and Care Awards announced by Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Matt Hancock today. The ‘Deep learning for effective triaging of skin disease in the NHS’ project will see researchers develop an AI system to accurately distinguish between benign lesions and cancers.

Skin cancer is the commonest human cancer, with cases increasing in frequency by 5% per year in the UK. Diagnosis and management of suspected skin cancer represents over half of the workload of any specialist dermatology service, with primary care practitioners, often untrained in skin cancer recognition, lacking the necessary experience to distinguish innocent from cancerous lesions.

In a pilot project, funded by Detect Cancer Early, the Dundee team developed a deep learning system able to detect common skin cancers with state-of-the-art accuracy. This preliminary work has used selected and pre-processed image datasets that are not representative of routine NHS data and the researchers will now develop their technology to achieve diagnostic accuracy with image data from NHS clinics.

This next phase will start the integration of a learning AI system into everyday clinical care within NHS Tayside to refine clinical capability in a real-world setting.

“Our interdisciplinary group is uniquely positioned to exploit and develop this technology for NHS benefit,” said project leader Professor Stephen McKenna, of the University’s Computing department.

“Success in this area will be gradual, starting with goals such as clinical decision support for the most common benign lesions. Skin disease naturally lends itself to automated image analysis. Lesions can be photographed easily and then analysed with the help of deep learning technology.”

The team also consists of the University’s Professor Emanuele Trucco, a renowned expert in Computer Vision & Image Processing, Charlotte Proby, Professor of Dermatology at the School of Medicine, and Professor Colin Fleming, Consultant Dermatologist at Ninewells Hospital and Director of the Discovery Institute of Dermatology.

Professor Fleming said realising this development would bring many benefits. “Patients are delighted to be reassured about benign lesions, GPs could enjoy immediate education from such a system, and fewer patients would need to attend hospital appointments,” he said.

“NHS Tayside has 20 years of experience of large-scale digital capture of images in primary care, with assessment by secondary care dermatologists providing fast remote diagnosis, resulting in fewer appointments and improved patient satisfaction.

“One in 5 GP consultations are related to skin disease. In addition to GP costs, around £100 million per annum in NHS Scotland is spent on secondary care services treating skin disease so there is a pressing need to concentrate resources in this area of disease.”

A total of 42 technologies and projects received funding as the first winners of the AI in Health and Care Awards and will be implemented or tested in the NHS over the next few years. This initiative aims to support the NHS to become a world leader in the use of machine learning to harness benefits including faster and more personalised diagnosis and potential screening service efficiencies.

Announcing the awards, Mr Hancock said, “AI has huge potential for transforming healthcare and freeing up medical professionals’ time - these awards are just the start of an exciting pipeline of new technology that will identify new ways to diagnose, screen and treat illnesses ranging from dementia and sepsis to antibiotic resistant infections and problems in pregnancy.”

The AI in Health and Care Award forms part of the NHS AI Lab and is managed by the Accelerated Access Collaborative in partnership with NHSX and the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR).

The NHS AI Lab, announced by the Prime Minister last year, is a key part of the health services’ efforts to drive up the use of innovative new technologies.


Grant Hill

Senior Public Affairs Officer

+44 (0)1382 384768
Story category Research