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Identification of nodal micrometastasis in colorectal cancer by deep learning on annotation-free WSI

Published by Modern Pathology, June 2021


Detection of nodal micrometastasis (tumor size: 0.2–2.0 mm) is challenging for pathologists due to the small size of metastatic foci. Since lymph nodes with micrometastasis are counted as positive nodes, detecting micrometastasis is crucial for accurate pathologic staging of colorectal cancer. Previously, deep learning algorithms developed with manually annotated images performed well in identifying micrometastasis of breast cancer in sentinel lymph nodes. However, the process of manual annotation is labor intensive and time consuming. Multiple instance learning was later used to identify metastatic breast cancer without manual annotation, but its performance appears worse in detecting micrometastasis. Here, we developed a deep learning model using whole-slide images of regional lymph nodes of colorectal cancer with only a slide-level label (either a positive or negative slide). The training, validation, and testing sets included 1963, 219, and 1000 slides, respectively. A supercomputer TAIWANIA 2 was used to train a deep learning model to identify metastasis. At slide level, our algorithm performed well in identifying both macrometastasis (tumor size > 2.0 mm) and micrometastasis with an area under the receiver operating characteristics curve (AUC) of 0.9993 and 0.9956, respectively. Since most of our slides had more than one lymph node, we then tested the performance of our algorithm on 538 single-lymph node images randomly cropped from the testing set. At single-lymph node level, our algorithm maintained good performance in identifying macrometastasis and micrometastasis with an AUC of 0.9944 and 0.9476, respectively. Visualization using class activation mapping confirmed that our model identified nodal metastasis based on areas of tumor cells. Our results demonstrate for the first time that micrometastasis could be detected by deep learning on whole-slide images without manual annotation.

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