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Predicting lymph node metastasis from primary tumor histology and clinicopathologic factors in colorectal cancer using deep learning

Fraser Tan
Isabelle Flament-Auvigne
Trissia Brown
Markus Plass
Robert Reihs
Heimo Mueller
Kurt Zatloukal
Pema Richeson
Lily Peng
Craig Mermel
Cameron Chen
Saurabh Gombar
Thomas Montine
Jeanne Shen
Nature Communications Medicine, vol. 3 (2023), pp. 59


Background: Presence of lymph node metastasis (LNM) influences prognosis and clinical decision-making in colorectal cancer. However, detection of LNM is variable and depends on a number of external factors. Deep learning has shown success in computational pathology, but has struggled to boost performance when combined with known predictors. Methods: Machine-learned features are created by clustering deep learning embeddings of small patches of tumor in colorectal cancer via k-means, and then selecting the top clusters that add predictive value to a logistic regression model when combined with known baseline clinicopathological variables. We then analyze performance of logistic regression models trained with and without these machine-learned features in combination with the baseline variables. Results: The machine-learned extracted features provide independent signal for the presence of LNM (AUROC: 0.638, 95% CI: [0.590, 0.683]). Furthermore, the machine-learned features add predictive value to the set of 6 clinicopathologic variables in an external validation set (likelihood ratio test, p < 0.00032; AUROC: 0.740, 95% CI: [0.701, 0.780]). A model incorporating these features can also further risk-stratify patients with and without identified metastasis (p < 0.001 for both stage II and stage III). Conclusion: This work demonstrates an effective approach to combine deep learning with established clinicopathologic factors in order to identify independently informative features associated with LNM. Further work building on these specific results may have important impact in prognostication and therapeutic decision making for LNM. Additionally, this general computational approach may prove useful in other contexts.