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Fighting colon cancer with AI


Colon cancer is one of the most common and deadly types of cancer in Germany. Every year, about 58,000 people are diagnosed with this disease. If detected early, colon cancer is easily cured. However, despite significant advances in screening and treatment, clinicians still face challenges in diagnosis and prognosis. This is where DECADE – Decentralized artificial intelligence for diagnosis, prognosis and response prediction in Colorectal Cancer – comes in. Several university hospitals in Germany are collaborating to investigate how the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and swarm learning (SL) can significantly improve the care and treatment of colorectal cancer patients in both early and advanced stages. AI is already able to analyze large amounts of data and recognize certain patterns. The insights gained from this can help better predict disease course or make a more individualized diagnosis. The goal of this research project is to use AI and SL to significantly improve the treatment of colorectal cancer patients.

Colon cancer is one of the most common and deadly types of cancer in Germany. Every year, about 58,000 people are diagnosed with this disease. If detected early, colon cancer is easily cured. However, despite significant advances in screening and treatment, clinicians still face challenges in diagnosis and prognosis. This is where DECADE – Decentralized artificial intelligence for diagnosis, prognosis and response prediction in Colorectal Cancer – comes in. Several university hospitals in Germany are collaborating to investigate how the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and swarm learning (SL) can significantly improve the care and treatment of colorectal cancer patients in both early and advanced stages. AI is already able to analyze large amounts of data and recognize certain patterns. The insights gained from this can help better predict disease course or make a more individualized diagnosis. The goal of this research project is to use AI and SL to significantly improve the treatment of colorectal cancer patients.

Prof. Jakob N. Kather, project leader and Professor of Clinical Artificial Intelligence at the Else Kröner Fresenius Center for Digital Health at TU Dresden and Dresden University Hospital, said at the start of the project: “AI tools have so far only been used with some hesitation in routine clinical practice. One reason is that the exchange of data between hospitals is severely constrained by legal and ethical hurdles, especially in Germany. One solution to this problem is swarm learning. With swarm learning, multiple institutions can jointly train medical AI models without exchanging data. By using decentralized artificial intelligence and swarm learning, it is expected to improve diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment planning for colorectal cancer patients.”

Train AI with decentralized patient data

In cancer research, privacy laws and ethical hurdles make it difficult to share sensitive patient data between different research institutions, although many patients are in principle supportive of their data being used for research purposes. Swarm learning makes it easier to meet privacy requirements. Swarm learning is a special form of machine learning in which models are trained without exchanging actual data between participants. The coordination and merging of models is done via the blockchain, eliminating the need for a central instance. The DECADE project builds on this method to use SL-based AI technologies to solve real-world clinical problems related to colorectal cancer. “The legal requirements to protect sensitive health data are very high. This innovative herd learning method enables the benefits of collaboration and knowledge transfer between different research institutions to be realized without violating privacy regulations. In this way, AI models in cancer research can be further developed and improved to enable better diagnosis, prognosis and treatment approaches for cancer patients,” said Prof. Tom Lüdde, Director of the Department of Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Infectious Diseases at the University Hospital Düsseldorf. Project partners will use SL to develop AI algorithms to diagnose and subtype colorectal cancer and predict disease progression. In doing so, they set a precedent for the use of SL in medicine that can serve as a template for any AI system in the healthcare sector. After all, a stronger AI system could help doctors detect colon cancer at an early stage and treat it more effectively. This can support medical staff and improve the care and treatment of colorectal cancer patients.

Background information:
The research project DECADE – Decentralized artificial intelligence for the diagnosis, prognostication and response prediction in Colorectal Cancer – is funded by German Cancer Aid with an estimated budget of 1.5 million euros over three years (2023-2026). Project partners are university hospitals in Bonn, Dresden, Düsseldorf, Heidelberg and Mainz. The goal of this research project is to use artificial intelligence and swarm learning to improve the treatment of colorectal cancer patients.

Project partners:

  • Else Kröner Fresenius Center for Digital Health, TU Dresden, Dresden University Hospital
  • Heidelberg University Hospital, Institute of Pathology, Department of Applied Tumor Biology
  • Mainz University Hospital, Institute of Pathology
  • Bonn University Hospital, Medical Clinic and Polyclinic 1, National Center for Hereditary Tumor Syndromes
  • Düsseldorf University Hospital, Department of Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Infectious Diseases



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