A Pragmatic Machine Learning Approach to Quantify Tumor Infiltrating Lymphocytes in Whole Slide Images

Increased levels of tumor infiltrating lymphocytes (TILs) in cancer tissue indicate favourable outcomes in many types of cancer. Manual quantification of immune cells is inaccurate and time consuming for pathologists. Our aim is to leverage a computational solution to automatically quantify TILs in whole slide images (WSIs) of standard diagnostic haematoxylin and eosin stained sections (H&E slides) from lung cancer patients. Our approach is to transfer an open source machine learning method for segmentation and classification of nuclei in H&E slides trained on public data to TIL quantification without manual labeling of our data. Our results show that additional augmentation improves model transferability when training on few samples/limited tissue types. Models trained with sufficient samples/tissue types do not benefit from our additional augmentation policy. Further, the resulting TIL quantification correlates to patient prognosis and compares favorably to the current state-of-the-art method for immune cell detection in non-small lung cancer (current standard CD8 cells in DAB stained TMAs HR 0.34 95% CI 0.17-0.68 vs TILs in HE WSIs: HoVer-Net PanNuke Aug Model HR 0.30 95% CI 0.15-0.60, HoVer-Net MoNuSAC Aug model HR 0.27 95% CI 0.14-0.53). Moreover, we implemented a cloud based system to train, deploy and visually inspect machine learning based annotation for H&E slides. Our pragmatic approach bridges the gap between machine learning research, translational clinical research and clinical implementation. However, validation in prospective studies is needed to assert that the method works in a clinical setting.

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