Computer science reduce false positives and unnecessary surgeries

Every year 40,000 women die from breast cancer in the U.S. alone. When cancers are found early, they can often be cured. Mammograms are the best test available, but they’re still imperfect and often result in false positive results that can lead to unnecessary biopsies and surgeries.

One common cause of false positives are so-called “high-risk” lesions that appear suspicious on mammograms and have abnormal cells when tested by needle biopsy. In this case, the patient typically undergoes surgery to have the lesion removed; however, the lesions turn out to be benign at surgery 90 percent of the time. This means that every year thousands of women go through painful, expensive, scar-inducing surgeries that weren’t even necessary.

How, then, can unnecessary surgeries be eliminated while still maintaining the important role of mammography in cancer detection? Researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), Massachusetts General Hospital, and Harvard Medical School believe that the answer is to turn to artificial intelligence (AI).

As a first project to apply AI to improving detection and diagnosis, the teams collaborated to develop an AI system that uses machine learning to predict if a high-risk lesion identified on needle biopsy after a mammogram will upgrade to cancer at surgery.

When tested on 335 high-risk lesions, the model correctly diagnosed 97 percent of the breast cancers as malignant and reduced the number of benign surgeries by more than 30 percent compared to existing approaches.

“Because diagnostic tools are so inexact, there is an understandable tendency for doctors to over-screen for breast cancer,” says Regina Barzilay, MIT’s Delta Electronics Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and a breast cancer survivor herself. “When there’s this much uncertainty in data, machine learning is exactly the tool that we need to improve detection and prevent over-treatment.”

Trained on information about more than 600 existing high-risk lesions, the model looks for patterns among many different data elements that include demographics, family history, past biopsies, and pathology reports.

“To our knowledge, this is the first study to apply machine learning to the task of distinguishing high-risk lesions that need surgery from those that don’t,” says collaborator Constance Lehman, professor at Harvard Medical School and chief of the Breast Imaging Division at MGH’s Department of Radiology. “We believe this could support women to make more informed decisions about their treatment, and that we could provide more targeted approaches to health care in general.”