Digital technology may make microscopes obsolete

Beyond the CHU, international concerns

CytomineCytomine has been a big hit with the medical faculty of the ULg, and is ready to make a wider circle of friends. There was already interest. “In the pharmaceutical sector, the Breast International Group (BIG) is interested in our platform,” says Stévens. “Their research is aimed at the most severe form of breast cancer, a type against which science has not made progress in the last 20 years. So the BIG company launched Aurora, an international project, for the purpose of gathering, classifying and analyzing 13,000 slides from 1,300 European patients. We will let them use our platform for handling imagery.” The struggle against cancer has to be carried on at the international level. It is impossible to put together a reliable data base if all the data comes from one country such as Belgium. There are not enough patients here. Means of communication, central facilities for storing and sharing images and easy access to the system – these are the priorities.

Another possibility involves the use of a bio-bank, a collection of tumour tissues, with samples from different studies divided into groups and classified after being digitized. “We are in contact with other large research centres. These centres of cancer research allow many researchers to come work for them for two or three years. Each one takes hundreds of samples for their work, and these end up in file drawers, and there is no traceability for the slides. The centres want to end that waste. They systematically digitize all samples taken, and they will need a programme like ours to keep track of their activities and to provide content for their bio-bank. The bio-bank will be at the service of future researchers, especially by reducing the cost of research, and it will reduce the need for producing so many slides”.


Moving toward the world of business

Taking note of these needs, shared by many, the project leaders have decided to bring the project out of its university campus cocoon. The programme is now robust enough to survive being adapted to commercial requirements. Raphaël Marée will remain at the ULg, developing algorithms for image analysis for the platform, and he will work on bringing out the pedagogical potential of the programme. Benjamin Stévens will take the project is yet another direction: “We have a First Spin-off Project that should appear at the end of 2014. The purpose will be to get closer to the client, from installation to the specialization of the programme, so everyone’s expectations will be realized. We will offer storage space and other specific developments depending on the need… Over and above the relationship with the client, this Spin-off will represent a high-quality brand”.

Success seems within reach for Cytomine, which has only begun to be applied outside the biomedical realm. Groups from various areas are asking for access to the platform, using it for storage and classification. "There are dentists, geologists, and veterinarians. One could imagine that the programme could also be useful in astronomy, botany, and geospatial analysis. Derived from digital cartography and eventually returning to it, that’s a worthwhile circle, is it not?” In the meantime, Cytomine continues to win acceptance in the biomedical area, and has still other opportunities in view. “Digital pathology is still a luxury,” Stévens concludes before presenting a final example of the possibilities of the spin-off. “Scanners are very expensive, the technology is not always available… We want to be able to offer digital pathology at low cost. To use the platform, all you have to do is create an account. As for digitization, the platform’s clients will have reduced need for investing in a scanner for spot duty. All they will have to do is deliver their samples, which we can scan in the tumour biology and localized development laboratory at the CHU in Liège (we are able to scan 1000 slides a day), and they will receive links so they can view the digitized images online."

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