New consortium aims to establish the biggest pathology data to advance artificial intelligence

A new consortium of the EU Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI) aims to establish the biggest database of pathology images to accelerate the development of artificial intelligence in medicine.

To take AI development in pathology to the next level, a European consortium combining leading European research centers, hospitals as well as major pharmaceutical industries, is going to develop a repository for the sharing of pathology data. The 6-year, €70 million projects called BIGPICTURE, will herald a new era in pathology.

Pathology is the cornerstone of the workup of many diseases such as cancer, autoimmune diseases, of the follow-up after transplantation and is also critical for the evaluation of the safety of drugs. It's based on the examination of tissue samples (slides) under the microscope. However, despite its pivotal role, it still relies heavily on the qualitative interpretation by a qualified pathologist.

While the microscope symbolizes the profession, the digitalization of slides in recent years ignited a revolution: not only images can now be shared and accessed from distant locations, they can also be processed by computers.

This opens the door for artificial intelligence (AI) applications to assist the pathologist and help study diseases, find better treatments and contribute to the 3Rs (replace, reduce, and refine animal use in research).

However, the development of robust AI applications requires large amounts of data, which in the case of pathology means a huge collection of digital slides and the medical data necessary for their interpretation.

Sharing these has so far remained challenging due to the data storage capacity required to host a sufficiently large collection and to concerns regarding the confidential character of the medical information.

To allow the fast development of AI in pathology, the BIGPICTURE project aims to create the first European, ethical, and GDPR-compliant (General Data Protection Regulation), quality-controlled platform, in which both large-scale data and AI algorithms will coexist.

The BIGPICTURE platform will be developed in a sustainable and inclusive way by connecting communities of pathologists, researchers, AI developers, patients, and industry parties.

The project is divided into four main aspects that concern the large-scale collection of data. First, an infrastructure (hardware and software) must be created to store, share and process millions of images that can be gigabytes each. Second, legal and ethical constraints must be put in place to ensure adequate usage of data while fully respecting patient's privacy and data confidentiality.

Then, an initial set of 3 million digital slides from humans and laboratory animals will be collected and stored in the repository to provide data for the development of pathology AI tools. Finally, functionalities that aid the use of the database, as well as the processing of images for diagnostic and research purposes, will be developed.

BIGPICTURE is a public-private partnership funded by IMI, with representation from academic institutions, small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), public organizations, and pharmaceutical companies, together with a large network slide contributing partners. The consortium partners involved in the project are:

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