Artificial intelligence

Yitu unveils new AI cancer detection tool, hailing such products ‘great creations in human history’

  • The start-up is one of dozens of AI companies that have emerged to apply know-how in computer vision and natural language processing to detecting cancer
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 November, 2018, 7:03am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 November, 2018, 11:00am

Yitu Technology, a leading Chinese artificial intelligence start-up, has introduced a new AI cancer screening tool aimed at reducing the workload and improving diagnostic capabilities for radiologists around the world.

Unveiled at the Radiological Society of North America’s annual conference in Chicago on Wednesday, the tool enables machines to make diagnosis and treatment recommendations within seconds based on a comprehensive array of inputs, including patient scans, ultrasounds, pathology specimens, genetics and written records.

The tool highlights an area of AI applications in which China is strong – in part because of the country’s AI drive, but also because the country is home to one in every five cancer patients globally, according to government statistics.

“China is making rapid progress and leading in applying AI to the health industry,” said Cathy Fang Cong, vice-president of Yitu Healthcare, on the sidelines of the launch on Wednesday. “Medical AI products that can address clinical needs with reliable performance and be replicated quickly are great creations in human history.”

The Shanghai-based start-up is one of dozens of AI companies that have emerged in recent years to apply know-how in computer vision and natural language processing to detecting cancer. In November last year, an intelligent robot developed by Shenzhen-listed iFlytek passed the country’s written national qualification exam for doctors. Founded in 2012, Yitu counts Sequoia Capital, Yunfeng Capital and Hillhouse Capital among its investors.

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Yitu’s intelligent diagnostic and treatment platform can help doctors to diagnose, and treat, lung and breast cancers, the most common forms of the disease among men and women in China respectively, according to the company. Research on widening the platform to detecting cervical, colorectal and gastric cancer is under way.

Tencent Holdings, operator of the ubiquitous WeChat social messaging platform, was hand-picked by Beijing last November to spearhead AI applications in health care. It has since teamed up with over 100 triple-A rated hospitals across the country.

Meanwhile, China’s leading search engine operator Baidu has moved to open-source AI technologies that can help pathologists detect breast cancer, while Alibaba Group Holding, China’s biggest e-commerce company and owner of the South China Morning Post, has announced tie-ups with hospitals for smart diagnosis platforms.

Yitu also unveiled a 4D imaging system for chest CT scans at the RSNA conference, featuring real-time imaging of lungs for detection of nodules and other lesions, including cystic, strip and patchy shadows. This tool is designed as a “clinical assistant” to reduce the workload of radiologists.

“The system is a breakthrough for chest CT scans, as it’s the first one across the world to enables full-dimensional detection of lesions,” Cong said, adding that so far others had focused solely on nodules.

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Yitu has a team of more than 400 certified doctors and has tie-ups with over 200 triple-A rated hospitals in the country for trial use under clinical settings. In June, Yitu announced a tie-up with West China Hospital in Chengdu on lung cancer research, giving it access to about 28,000 real world cases – the world’s biggest database of its kind – for AI diagnosis studies.

There are over 780,000 new cases of lung cancer in China in an average year, according to the National Cancer Institute. Environmental pollution, unhealthy lifestyles and longer life expectancy are believed to be the main drivers behind the country’s high incidence of cancer, said Zhou Chunwu, vice-dean of the Cancer Hospital of the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences, at an industry conference in Beijing earlier this month.

Yitu is currently taking part in a national early cancer screening programme being rolled out across the country. The company set up an office in Singapore earlier this year as a foothold for its global expansion. Southeast Asian countries will likely become the first stop, where regulators share an “open and positive” attitude towards AI-assisted health care, said Cong.

The Yitu system for lung cancer is likely to win approval from the China Food and Drug Administration for commercial use next year, Ni Hao, Yitu’s health care chief executive, said in an interview in June.