Emerging Role of Digital Pathology in Cancer

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Cancer is now a leading cause of death worldwide. Every year, across the world 8.2 million people die from cancer. As the World Health Organization (W.H.O) estimates, deaths from this deadly disease will continue to rise, reaching over 13.1 million in 2030.

W.H.O flags that two-thirds of these deaths occur in low and middle-income countries. More than 50 percent of cancer deaths could have been prevented through awareness campaigns, or could have been effectively addressed through expert screening, early diagnosis and affordable treatment.

From this perspective, ‘digital pathology’ offers an immense potential to make a significant difference in the lives of many, who are either high risk individuals, or actually suffering from life threatening ailments. In this article, I shall try to illustrate the above point, in simple language, citing the emerging role of ‘digital pathology’ in cancer, as an example.

Incidence of cancer in India:

W.H.O reports that presently in India, cancer is a major cause of morbidity and mortality. This is vindicated by the 2016 Press Release of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) stating that, the total number of new cancer cases was expected to be around 1.45 million  in 2016, and the figure is likely to reach nearly 1.73 million new cases in 2020.

ICMR expected over 736,000 people to succumb to the disease in 2016 while the figure was estimated to shoot up to 880,000 by 2020. The data also revealed that only 12.5 percent of patients come for treatment in early stages of the disease. Another report estimated that around 2.5 million individuals in India are living with the cancer.

Launch of cancer screening program:

Realizing the increasing incidence of cancer, ‘the National Program for the Prevention and Control of Cancer, Diabetes, Cardiovascular Diseases and Stroke (NPCDCS)’ was initiated in 100 districts in 2010, and expanded to about 468 districts in 2012, in tandem with other Non Communicable Diseases (NCDs).

After further review, the Government informed the Indian Parliament on April 01, 2017 about the launch of universal screening of diabetes, hypertension and cancer in 2100 districts, which would be extended across the country. Accordingly, ‘Operational Guidelines for Non-Communicable Diseases’ were worked out and made public.

A large number of cancer cases remain undetected:

It is worth noting, India is still among one those countries where a large number of cancer cases remain undetected or under-diagnosed. The country continues to grapple with a huge dearth of specialists in this area. These include not just cancer specialists, which reportedly is just 1 over 2000 cancer patients, but qualified pathologists, as well. This stark reality assumes greater importance, as early diagnosis with precision is the key to successful treatment of cancer.

It’s more in rural India:

Availability and access to affordable cancer diagnostic facilities, are indeed a major issue much more in rural areas – the home of over 70 percent of the Indian population. Consequently, its late detection, together with low awareness level for disease prevention, is considered to be the major factors attributing to relatively higher cancer mortality rate in the country.

The intensity of this problem increases manifold and gets more complex, due to various other geographic and logistical constraints. This situation makes high-technology based medical interventions a necessity to save many lives.

A unique public-private partnership initiative:

Interestingly, some developed countries are also trying to address the core issue of increasing access to affordable cancer diagnosis and treatment to all.  An example of which can be drawn from the United Kingdom (UK), where one of finest Universal Health Care (UHC) system exists, for a long time.

On December 06, 2017, by a media release Roche Diagnostics announced a groundbreaking partnership discussions with the UK Government to transform cancer testing in patients.’ It said that the current shortage of pathologists and geographic constraints can make it difficult or longer for an expert to provide an opinion on a cancer patient case, where ‘digital pathology’ can play a crucial life-saving role.

Roche Diagnostics articulated that once important patient-cases are made available digitally, experts from any location can review them without delay. This would lead to availability of more equal access to experts to provide a timely and accurate diagnosis for cancer patients. It further said, making more information available electronically opens possibilities for the discovery of new treatments and the development of Artificial Intelligence algorithms in pathology diagnosis.

A Public-Private-Partnership (PPP) approach, such as the above can add greater efficiency, especially in tissue pathology services – including the expensive ones, to deliver faster and more accurate test results across the health care space, even in India. It goes without saying, such a PPP initiative has to be fleshed out with considerable details to unleash its true potential.

Thus, ‘digital pathology’, I reckon, has the potential to play a path-breaking role in providing access to affordable and early diagnosis of cancer to a large number patients, even in remote places, leading to better outcomes.

The scope of ‘digital pathology’:

It now brings us to the question of: what exactly is ‘digital pathology’? In simple term, ‘digital pathology’ involves remotely examining the whole slide digital imaging of original pathological slides of a patient, virtually in real time, from anywhere in the world to properly diagnose a disease. In case of cancer, these are digital image of original blood and tissue slides of patients, examined by experts with the application of special ‘digital pathology’ software and hardware, from a distant specialty hospital or laboratory.

According to the article titled ‘Artificial intelligence is aiding pathologists’, published on September 02, 2017 by the ‘Digital Journal’, AI or machine learning is being increasingly used in ‘digital pathology’ for precision diagnosis of a disease.

One such use of AI in ‘digital pathology’ for cancer, is to recognize broad or specific patterns in a whole slide image to interpret the features in the cancerous tissues for accurate diagnosis of metastasis and recurrence, besides the stage or grade of cancer.

Preparation of samples for ‘digital pathology’ is very important, and the requirements may vary with different cancer types. Nonetheless, prescribed procedures for each need to be adhered to, meticulously, even in those areas where there is no qualified pathologist, and paramedics do this job. Hence, those personnel should be thoroughly trained and periodically refreshed by well qualified specialist trainers.

Digital pathology in India:

The article titled, ‘Telepathology at the doorstep of a village’, published by the Department of Atomic Energy in India that was last updated on December 14, 2017, aptly captures the scope of ‘digital pathology’ or ‘Telepathology’ in the country.

The authors recognized in the article, despite the high quality of expertise being available within the country, even for the treatment of cancer, it is not available or accessible to a large section of the population, more in the rural areas. On the other hand, super specialty health care facilities like, Tata Memorial Hospital (TMH) or All India Institute of Medical Science (AIIMS) cannot take the increasing patient load, beyond a point, due to various constraints.

Improving telecommunication infrastructure in the country, can be put to effective use for accurate diagnosis of cancer with ‘digital pathology’ or ‘tele-pathology’. Nevertheless, this application is currently operable mostly in those rural and semi urban areas, where a minimum standard of telecommunication infrastructure is available. However, the good news is, such areas are growing in India.

An interesting example is Barshi – a rural landscape in interior Maharashtra, located around 500 km away from Mumbai. Nargis Dutt Memorial Cancer Hospital (NDMCH) located in this hinterland, with Tata Memorial Hospital’s constant support and guidance, especially in ‘digital pathology’ has become an important cancer center. NDMCH now caters to a sizable population from a number of villages and towns surrounding it – in the districts of Solapur, Osmanabad and Latur.

A Government Press Release of October 19, 2016 states that AIIMS in Delhi has gone digital, becoming India’s first fully digital public e-hospital. More initiatives, such as these, in collaboration with rural health centers, and other related PPP initiatives, are expected to significantly improve access to ‘digital pathology’ to a large population, especially for early cancer detection in India.

More ‘Digital pathology’ initiatives are spreading roots in India, including the private business space. For example, according to a media report, Anand Diagnostic Laboratory in Bengaluru has become the first private diagnostic laboratory in the country to adopt the complete Roche Digital Pathology portfolio to provide better diagnostic insights for physicians and their patients.

“From simply remotely viewing patient slides, to consulting specialists real time within India or even through other parts of the world – the applications of digital pathology are endless” – commented the Managing Director, Roche Diagnostics India, while discussing the new technology at a meeting of pathologists in India.


Against this backdrop, a wide-network of PPP initiatives of affordable ‘digital pathology’ would be a game changer, particularly for early detection of cancer.  With the incidence of cancer rising fast in India, and its effective management getting increasingly more complex – requiring prompt specialists’ intervention right from early diagnosis, such initiatives call for high priority.

A few green-shoots are already visible in this area, but quite sporadic in nature, though. Hoping that its pace of progress will soon gain momentum, the emerging role of digital pathology in cancer brings a fresh hope for survival with dignity to a large population of patients – if and when cancer poses to strike its deadly blow.

By: Tapan J. Ray 

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.

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