Space technology to speed up bowel cancer diagnosis

Technology used to operate space telescopes is being repurposed to revolutionise bowel cancer diagnosis under a multimillion-pound initiative involving the UK Space Agency.

A team of researchers at University College London hopes to drastically reduce the time it takes to detect and diagnose the disease – one of the deadliest forms of cancer in the UK – by deploying space technology to help rapidly analyse colonoscopy videos.

The Early Diagnosis Real-Time Healthcare System for Cancer project – dubbed Earth Scan – aims to take advantage of data-crunching and transmitting innovations first developed for controlling satellites in space.

It will be funded with a share of £5 million from the UK Space Agency to mark the 70th birthday of the NHS.

Science Minister Chris Skidmore said the health service aims to slash cancer deaths by borrowing technological advances from other sectors.

He said: “It’s incredible that artificial intelligence technology that was first developed decades ago and is being used to examine distant planets will now help detect some of the hardest to treat cancers at their earliest stages.

“With bowel cancer the second most common cause of cancer-related deaths, this kind of innovation will be crucial in helping the NHS prevent more than 20,000 cancer-related deaths a year by 2033 – a key aim of our modern Industrial Strategy.”

A fast and reliable data connection is essential when controlling a telescope in the depths of space.

Technology developed for this purpose will be used by Earth Scan to link up a cloud-based AI system that can support doctors when identifying cancer in patients.

By analysing colonoscopy images, the system identifies and characterises polyps which might be missed by human eyes.

Peter Mountney, researcher at UCL, said: “We are moving into a new era of healthcare where AI will support doctors to identify and diagnose cancer faster and more effectively.

“The Earth Scan project is an exciting opportunity to use satellite technology to bring this AI support to doctors in real time.

“Real-time support means doctors can make immediate decisions regarding treatment and patients can receive the results of their scan straight away instead of waiting weeks.”

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