Philips has announced plans for commercialising a digital technology that will ease the workload of pathologists detecting cancer in tissue cells.
The company revealed it will be introducing digital pathology systems for sale in the US in October. This follows an announcement by the company in July that it will be partnering with Dako, a Danish specialist in tissue-based cancer diagnostics, to integrate its image analysis technology into Philips’s future digital pathology systems.
Currently pathologists use microscopes to examine tissue sections mounted on glass slides and treated with different stains. The staining enhances the contrast between cellular and molecular components such as nuclei or specific proteins.
Accurate interpretation of the results is critical to the diagnosis and staging of each individual patient’s disease and requires a great deal of skill and experience.
Philips believes digitising the images that pathologists normally view through a microscope may enable the introduction of objective and quantitative image analysis tools.
‘The issue with pathology itself is lack of standardisation and reproducibility. It’s a very qualitative profession,’ said Guido Du Pree, vice-president of marketing and sales for digital pathology at Philips. ‘By going digital and using image analysis algorithms you can increase the reproducibility.’
Du Pree said Philips’s fast pathology slide scanner can scan standard slides at a speed of one slide every 50 seconds.
‘The speed of scanning is one of the reasons why digital pathology today is only used in research and education environments and not for clinical purposes,’ he added. ‘The systems today are too slow and cannot handle the average workload of a pathology lab.’
Philips’s system also incorporates digital image archive and analysis software for feature recognition and quantification.
The company said it will initially focus on leveraging Dako’s image analysis software for tissue-based breast cancer diagnosis using its compounds for staining specific proteins associated with the disease.
With success in this area, Philips and Dako will explore the possibility of extending the collaboration to include image analysis software for diagnosing prostate and colon cancers.
Du Pree said the technology will ease the workload of pathologists and also improve communication with doctors who care for patients eagerly awaiting the results of a biopsy.
‘The work in a pathologist department involves a lot of referrals and today that is all sent over physically by courier or mail,’ he added. ‘By going digital it will be much faster and much easier.’
Du Pree said the company will initially be marketing its systems in the US because of the sheer number of commercial laboratories demanding the technology.
‘We’re a Dutch company with strong angles in the European market so next year we will look to launch in Europe,’ he added
Over the last several years the NHS’s National Programme for IT has seen radiology departments throughout health trusts in England trade in traditional film images for digital ones.
The technology, known as Picture Archiving and Communications Systems (PACS), allows doctors to download X-rays and other images onto their computer screen. As of December 2007 PACS were rolled out throughout every health trust in England, and there is increasing uptake of the systems throughout Scotland and Wales.
However, pathology departments, not just in the UK but elsewhere throughout the world, have yet to catch up with the digital revolution.
One of the main reasons for this is the technical hurdles presented by the size of the images that need to be acquired in pathology.
The digital images that would be acquired by microscopes in the pathology department are much larger than CT files and can be difficult to manage and analyse.
Medical imaging specialists throughout the world have been working on the problem with commercial products waiting to be rolled out.
Du Pree estimated there would be an increasing demand for digital pathology in the coming years.
‘With the ageing population we will have more and more patients and cancer is typical of elderly people,’ he said. ‘Next to that there will be a greater demand on pathology departments because of developments in what can be tested. This means more work for the same amount of pathologists. Therefore, there is a huge need for efficiency.’