A trial is underway in the Highlands and Islands of a potentially transformative procedure that will use artificial intelligence to detect bowel cancer.

A capsule containing a tiny camera is swallowed by a patient and passes through their gastrointestinal tract, capturing up to 400,000 images which are then transmitted for analysis.

The procedure is accurate, cost effective, and significantly less disruptive to patients than existing methods. The new funding will support the development of artificial intelligence in analysing the images.

Bowel cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer in both men and women in Scotland, and the second most deadly with around 1,600dying from the disease every year.

Currently, invasive, time-consuming and expensive optical endoscopes are used to investigate bowel cancers and gastrointestinal diseases; 30 million in the world, 1m in the UK and 100,000 in Scotland.

Using the minimally invasive colon capsule endoscopy (CCE),a gastrointestinal investigation can be initiated by a GP, undertaken in the patient’s home, and overseen by a consultant remotely.

The pioneering programme involves a partnership comprising NHS Highland, the Digital Health and Care Institute (DHI), the web services provider OpenBrolly, and Danish firm CorporateHealth International (CHI), which has established a base in Inverness.

Feasibility studies have already been conducted at primary care sites in Skye and Ullapool.

Now, from their base in Aurora House on Inverness Campus, CHI and its partners are developing a new ‘patient pathway’ that is locally-based and delivers fast results in a cost-effective way.

“By enabling what are currently complex hospital investigations to be done easily at home,” explained Hagen Wenzek, CorporateHealth’s chief innovation officer, “and by allowing a patient’s medical team to quickly see very accurate results, we’re delivering benefits for clinicians, for public spending and, importantly, for patients. The potential is huge.”

CHI’s founders, Hamburg- based Dr Cornelius Glismann and New York-based Dr Wenzek had been looking around the world for the right partners to develop their diagnostic pathway.

An existing collaboration between the University of Southern Denmark and Scotland’s Digital Health and Care Institute led to Wenzek and Glismann sharing their proposals with DHI’s chief executive George Crooks.

Professor Crooks introduced them to Professor Angus Watson at NHS Highland and James Cameron, Head of Life Sciences at Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE). Professor Watson was already exploring this type of approach but lacked the resources to scale it up, which is CHI’s speciality.

Watson had also been working with Elgin-based IT specialists OpenBrolly on projects such as MyCancerPortal. OpenBrolly were experienced in pulling information across NHS firewalls and had learnt effective ways to anonymise patient information and then re-attach it to individual patient records.

Facilitated by DHI and HIE, the partners discovered that they shared the same commitment and confidence in the benefits the project promises. “I didn’t think a government agency could be so flexible and proactive,” added Wenzek. “The collaborative support we’ve had from HIE has been outstanding.”

CHI was one of the first companies to open a base at Inverness Campus, a 215-acre enterprise park with a particular focus on Life Sciences which is becoming a significant economic driver for the Highlands and Islands.

Thirty jobs, including AI and data specialists, are to be created at Inverness Campus over three years and, as demand rises, medical analysts based in Hamburg will be augmented by additional analysts in Inverness who will be reviewing images submitted from capsules across the UK.

Inverness will be CHI’s global research and development centre and, through its collaboration with HIE, the company has already won a contract with Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge to research ways that the analytical process can be undertaken by artificial intelligence.

“This exciting initiative is leading the way toward scalable, community-based bowel cancer screening in a way that can address the substantive backlogs we currently face,” commented Adrian Smith, head of digital transformation at NHS Arden & GEM CSU.

“This is an exceptional and highly creative programme driven by a passionately committed and knowledgeable set of partners that will underpin significant patient, clinician and system-wide benefits.”

Download a PDF of FutureScot magazine in The Times Scotland 15.12.18.