£16 million boost for pioneering AI research

Tens of thousands of patients across the country could benefit from quicker, earlier diagnoses and more effective treatments for a range of conditions, as the Government invests nearly £16 million into pioneering artificial intelligence (AI) research.

Nine companies have been awarded funding through the third round of the AIin Health and Care Awards, which is accelerating the testing and deployment of the most promising AI technologies. The awards were set up in 2019 to develop AI technology focused on helping patients manage long-term conditions, improve the speed and accuracy of diagnosis, and ultimately help tackle the COVID backlogs and cut waiting lists. They are delivered between the NHS AI Lab, the Accelerated Access Collaborative and the National Institute for Health and Care Research.

The winners include AI systems which can help detect cancer, diagnose rare diseases, identify women at highest risk of premature birth and support the treatment of neurological conditions like dementia. The funding will be used to support the testing, evaluation and adoption of their technologies by the NHS.  

So far, in total, £123 million has been invested in 86 AI technologies across three rounds of awards supporting over 300,000 patients and improving their care and treatment for health conditions such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, mental health and neurological disorders. 

Health and Social Care Secretary Steve Barclay said: “Artificial intelligence has the potential to speed up diagnoses and treatments and free up time for our doctors and nurses so they can focus on caring for patients. Around 300,000 people have already benefited from companies supported by our AI awards, with tens of thousands more set to benefit.” 

These schemes include technology that could recognise the signs of cancer more quickly and accurately, predict which women are more likely to give birth prematurely or analyse electronic health records to detect the signs of an undiagnosed rare disease.

Start-up Ibex has been awarded more than £1.5 million and it has developed an AI-driven algorithm to run checks for breast cancer. The technology analyses images of tissue extracts, helping pathologists detect cancer, so they can complete diagnoses more quickly. Its high accuracy rate could reduce the need for patients to repeat the biopsy process and free up more time for consultants.

Known as Galen Breast, it will be trialled at Nottingham University Hospitals, Cambridge University Hospitals, North West Anglia NHS Foundation Trust, Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board and University Hospitals Birmingham. Researchers will analyse its findings on 10,000 patients and evaluate improvements in the quality of diagnosis, cost-effectiveness and quicker turnaround times for patients.  

Ibex previously won an AI award in 2020, enabling the roll-out of Galen Prostate – the equivalent technology for prostate cancer – at six hospitals, including University College London and University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire.

Another winner, medical device company Medtronic, has been rolling out devices and therapies to treat more than 30 chronic diseases, including Parkinson’s and diabetes, some of which are being trialled in the NHS. It has been awarded £2.5 million to further develop an AI-based medical device called GI Genius, which has been trained to process colonoscopy images and detect signs of colon cancer, enabling earlier, more accurate diagnoses. 

An earlier study carried out in Dublin, Ireland suggested the technology could increase the detection of hard-to-detect precancerous polyps by up to 14.4%. In the 2021 study, it was shown to reduce the missed polyp rate by nearly 50%.  

Digital health start-up Mendelian has been awarded £1.4 million to support an AI system which identifies patients with undiagnosed rare diseases, as well as recommending the best management options, by analysing electronic health records. In the past decade undiagnosed rare diseases have cost the NHS in excess of £3.4 billion and data shows that patients with rare diseases attend hospitals more than twice as often as other patients, costing the NHS 4 times as much on average. 

The winners also include a consortium led by the University of Bristol which has already developed an online medical tool which is identifying pregnant women who are most at risk of giving birth prematurely or of developing complications that could lead to stillbirth. Tommy’s App has been created to process information gathered at pregnancy check-ups which then generated a risk score for each patient. This is used to provide personalised care recommendations, lowering the risk of preterm birth or stillbirth. The team will receive nearly £1.9 million in government funding to build on the clinical decision tool.  

Last year, data was published in obstetrics and gynaecology journal BJOG, showing the tool can help reduce health inequalities in Black, Asian and other pregnant women in ethnic minority groups. Researchers found perinatal death rates were three times higher in ethnic minority mothers. However, when the tool was used alongside targeted care, these rates fell to approximately the same across all the ethnic groups. 

Professor Emad Rakha, honorary consultant pathologist at the University of Nottingham and Nottingham University Hospitals NHS trust, said: “Over the last several years in the UK, cancer cases increased while the number of pathologists decreased, resulting in record-high workloads for pathology departments.  

“Timely and accurate diagnosis can significantly impact breast cancer survival rates, making Ibex’s solution a vital and welcome addition into NHS Trusts.”

“Dr. Jackie Cook, Consultant in Clinical Genetics and Co-Clinical Director at North East and Yorkshire NHS Genomic Medicine Service Alliance, said: “Patients with rare diseases can face a long diagnostic journey, often taking many years with multiple investigations and appointments before a diagnosis is made.   

“By using this technology to interrogate patient records, my hope is that patients with rare diseases will be identified much faster, avoid unnecessary investigations and achieve a diagnosis in a much shorter timeframe. This could enable patients to receive potential treatments earlier, inform ongoing care and, where appropriate, allow reproductive decisions.”

Dr. Bu Hayee, consultant gastroenterologist and principle investigator of Medtronic’s study, said: “I’m pleased to be working on this project to establish whether the use of AIin colonoscopy might influence endoscopy performance and improve outcomes for patients.There has never been a greater need for innovation in the NHS and this research may be able to shine a light on the possible benefits this technology can provide. 

“Our NAIAD (National study of Artificial Intelligence in Adenoma Detection for colonoscopy) study is set to explore the use of AI in a ‘real world’ setting, and how it might influence endoscopists in their day-to-day practice.”

Professor Basky Thilaganathan, Clinical Director to the Tommy’s National Centre for Maternity Improvement, said: "We believe that our Clinical Decision Support Tool can make a significant change in the delivery and experience of maternity care. We are thrilled to be able to expand our work with this funding, and further our learning to support our aim for NHS-wide adoption."

Dominic Cushnan, Director of AI, Imaging and Deployment at the NHS Transformation Directorate, said: "The AI Award is helping to develop the clinical and economic evidence for AI technologies we need to help build confidence among the NHS workforce that these technologies can not only free up some of their time but safely support them in providing care for patients."



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