AI cuts radiotherapy waiting times for NHS cancer patients

Artificial intelligence developed by and for the NHS at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge is reducing the amount of time cancer patients wait for radiotherapy treatment.

The new AI tool, called OSAIRIS, is saving many hours of doctors’ time in preparing scans and helping to cut the time patients have to wait between referral for radiotherapy and starting treatment.

Working alongside this AI technology, specialists can plan radiotherapy treatments approximately two and half times faster than if they were working alone, ensuring more patients can get treatment sooner and improving the likelihood of cure.

The technology is currently being used at Addenbrooke’s for prostate and head and neck cancers, but has the potential to work for many other types of cancer, benefitting patients across the NHS. 

Dr Raj Jena, oncologist at Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, led the research for the NHS and University of Cambridge. His research includes long-term collaborations with Microsoft Research on an AI research project known as Project InnerEye to develop machine learning techniques to support the global medical imaging community. 

To broaden access to research in this field, Microsoft Research made available Project InnerEye toolkits as open-source software.

With a £500,000 grant from the NHS AI Lab, Dr Jena’s team created a new AI tool, OSAIRIS, using open-source software from Project InnerEye and data from patients who had previously been treated in the hospital and agreed to contribute to the research.

OSAIRIS works by significantly cutting the amount of time a doctor needs to spend drawing around healthy organs on scans before radiotherapy.  Outlining the organs, known as ‘segmentation’, is critical in order to protect the healthy tissue around the cancer from radiation.

It can take a doctor between 20 minutes and three hours to perform this task, per patient. This complex but routine task is ideally suited to AI with the oncologist in control, checking every scan after OSAIRIS has done the segmentation.   

Rigorous tests and risk assessments have been carried out to ensure OSAIRIS is safe and can be used in the day-to-day care of radiotherapy patients across the NHS. In masked tests, known as ‘Turing tests’, doctors were unable to tell the difference between the work of OSAIRIS and the work of a doctor colleague.   

Dr Raj Jena, who is a member of CRUK RadNet Cambridge and our Brain Cancer Virtual Institute, said: 

“OSAIRIS does much of the work in the background so that when the oncologist sits down to start planning treatment, most of the heavy lifting is done. It is the first cloud-based AI technology to be developed and deployed within the NHS. 18 months of rigorous testing will enable us to share this technology safely across the NHS for patient benefit.”

“We’ve already started to work on a model that works in the chest, so that will work for lung cancer and breast cancer particularly,” he explains. “And also, from my perspective as a neurooncologist, I’m interested that we’re building the brain model as well so that we’ve got something that works for brain tumours as well.”

Aditya Nori, General Manager of Healthcare for Microsoft Research, said: 

“By combining the power of AI with the world-class clinical expertise of the NHS, we have an amazing opportunity for revolutionising healthcare together, while preserving the human element that is the essence of high-quality and safe care.”

“Healthcare offers the possibility not only to have technical impact but also societal impact, so I am really thrilled about this. The fact that we have AI finally in the NHS will also open the doors for other kinds of AI technologies to really reduce the burden that’s placed on clinicians, and more importantly, improve patient safety, outcomes, and experiences.”

Health and Social Care Secretary Steve Barclay said:

“Cutting edge technology can help us reduce waiting times for cancer patients, free up time for staff so they can focus on patient care, and ultimately save lives – and artificial intelligence is playing an increasingly important role.

“Backed by £500,000 in government funding, the team at Addenbrooke’s Hospital are utilising the innovative OSAIRIS tool to speed up radiotherapy scans at more than twice the normal rate – reducing the time it takes to start potentially life-saving treatment.

“It will also help ease the pressure on the NHS and cut waiting lists, one of the government’s five priorities.

“In the year the NHS turns 75 we are investing in its future and last week announced a new £21 million fund for Trusts to deploy AI tools in a safe and controlled way to speed up the diagnosis and treatment for a range of conditions.”

27 Jun 2023