Google-owned DeepMind has expanded its collaboration with the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), announcing a research partnership today with Moorfields Eye Hospital NHS Foundation Trust in London — its second publicly confirmed foray into working with the NHS.

But this time the project is being explicitly badged as medical research, and DeepMind will be applying AI machine learning algorithms to the data — so that’s also a first. Although the company has been public about its ambitions to apply AI to health data before now.

The Moorfields partnership is focused on two specific sight-loss causing conditions: diabetic retinopathy and age-related macular degeneration (AMD), which DeepMind notes collectively affect more than 625,000 people in the UK and more than 100 million people worldwide.

The stated aim is to investigate whether machine learning algorithms can automate the analysis of the digital eye scans that are typically used to diagnose the two conditions.

“These scans are highly complex and take a long time for eye health professionals to analyze, which can have an impact on how quickly they can meet patients to discuss diagnosis and treatment. And to date, traditional computer analysis tools have been unable to explore them fully,” it writes on the DeepMind Health website.

The company is getting access to a set of one million anonymized eye scans as part of the research partnership, as well as what it describes as “some related anonymous information about eye condition and disease management”.

It further notes this data has “been collected over time through routine care”, going on to assert: “This means it’s not possible to identify any individual patients from the scans. And they’re also historic scans, meaning that while the results of our research may be used to improve future care, they won’t affect the care any patient receives today.”

Using anonymized patient data and steering away from any direct patient care application reduces the information governance/ethical approvals DeepMind and its partner NHS Trust need to obtain in order to work with public healthcare data in this instance – in contrast to its first NHS collaboration, which attracted controversy and criticism after the full scope of the data-sharing agreement was revealed.

DeepMind has immediately linked to a detailed description of the research project, and says it has submitted its research protocol for open peer review — and will be submitting “any results from this research to peer-reviewed journals, as is normal, so others in the medical community can analyse them”.

It is less clear, however, whether DeepMind will be sharing the AI models it trains off of this cache of public healthcare data.

“It’s early days for this work, but we’re optimistic about the long-term potential for machine learning technology to help eye health professionals diagnose and treat other diseases that, like macular degeneration, affect the lives of millions of people across the world. It’s a hugely exciting opportunity to make a difference to the NHS and its patients, and we’ll keep you updated as we continue on this journey,” DeepMind adds.


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