Transforming breast cancer screening with artificial intelligence

Adjunct Associate Professor Helen Frazer

Computers that can quickly and accurately identify cancer patterns have the potential to save lives and transform the breast screening process.

Growing up, Adjunct Associate Professor Helen Frazer had a fascination with machines that could see inside the human body. Today she is at the forefront of Artificial Intelligence (AI) research.

As Clinical Director at St Vincent’s BreastScreen, Dr Frazer leads a multi-disciplinary team of experts focused on using deep learning AI to improve breast cancer screening and save lives through early detection.

Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in Australian women today, affecting one in seven women by age 85.

While mammographic (breast) screening reduces the risk of women dying, interpreting mammographic images is challenging. The human eye is not perfect, and screening is time-consuming, leaving some women anxious as they wait for results.

The Transforming Breast Cancer Screening with Artificial Intelligence (BRAIx) project led by Dr Frazer, is developing algorithms that may enable more accurate cancer detection when used in conjunction with a radiologist examining every mammogram.

“Radiologists can be thought of as ‘pattern doctors’, we’re looking to recognise patterns on medical images that are an indication of a cancer,” Dr Frazer explains.

“Computers can’t do everything, but one thing they are spectacularly good at is recognising patterns, providing they are trained on a really strong, curated, high-quality data set.

“Our team is privileged to work with the BreastScreen Victoria data set, which is 30 years mature, highly curated and globally unique.”

The project is also examining the use of the data set to predict the risk of breast cancer in a manner that enables a personalised screening pathway instead of the one-size-fits all approach.

“One of the other strengths of our work is our multi-disciplinary team,” Dr Frazer says.

“It includes clinicians, data scientists, epidemiologists, AI engineers and consumer researchers. We all bring different perspectives and the conversations at the intersection of the varied disciplines is where the magic happens.”

These diverse inputs and insights help establish the clinical evidence required to translate the results into patient-focused screening processes.

Her team’s success and cutting-edge approach to breast cancer research saw Dr Frazer named Innovator of the Year at the Victorian Government sponsored Women in Artificial Intelligence Awards 2022. She was also awarded in the AI in Health category.

“The Women in Artificial Intelligence award is great recognition of the team who have been working really hard towards our common goal,” Dr Frazer says. “We’re on a mission to transform breast cancer screening.”

The BRAIx project is being jointly developed by St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne, St Vincent's Institute of Medical Research, BreastScreen Victoria, the University of Melbourne and the Australian Institute of Machine Learning at the University of Adelaide, in partnership with the Aikenhead Centre for Medical Discovery (ACMD).

Dr Frazer says the awards are also an important way to recognise women working in AI across diverse industries and the critical role they play.

“As a child I was always interested in the life sciences and machines that could see inside the human body. So, I’m fortunate to be in an area which brings these together.

“Women’s participation rate in AI is just over 20 per cent and this presents problems,” she says.

“AI technology is advancing so rapidly but it brings with it ethical, legal and social issues that need to be addressed. It is important all voices are heard – including women and minority groups - if the right decisions are to be made.”

“One of the great things about the awards is the opportunity for younger women to see all the fabulous work in AI that is being done by women.

“For women still studying to be able to see what other women are doing across industries is incredibly exciting and will hopefully influence them down the track,” Dr Frazer says.

Supporting female innovators

Women currently make up only 31 per cent of Victoria’s digital technology workforce. The Victorian Government is proud to support the Women in AI Awards which honour and recognise women creating, leading and driving innovation with AI.     

Women in AI are also helping to address the significant under-representation of women in the technology workforce.