Automatic segmentation and supervised learning-based selection of nuclei in cancer tissue images

Cytometry A. 2012 Sep;81(9):743-54. doi: 10.1002/cyto.a.22097. Epub 2012 Jul 31.


Analysis of preferential localization of certain genes within the cell nuclei is emerging as a new technique for the diagnosis of breast cancer. Quantitation requires accurate segmentation of 100-200 cell nuclei in each tissue section to draw a statistically significant result. Thus, for large-scale analysis, manual processing is too time consuming and subjective. Fortuitously, acquired images generally contain many more nuclei than are needed for analysis. Therefore, we developed an integrated workflow that selects, following automatic segmentation, a subpopulation of accurately delineated nuclei for positioning of fluorescence in situ hybridization-labeled genes of interest. Segmentation was performed by a multistage watershed-based algorithm and screening by an artificial neural network-based pattern recognition engine. The performance of the workflow was quantified in terms of the fraction of automatically selected nuclei that were visually confirmed as well segmented and by the boundary accuracy of the well-segmented nuclei relative to a 2D dynamic programming-based reference segmentation method. Application of the method was demonstrated for discriminating normal and cancerous breast tissue sections based on the differential positioning of the HES5 gene. Automatic results agreed with manual analysis in 11 out of 14 cancers, all four normal cases, and all five noncancerous breast disease cases, thus showing the accuracy and robustness of the proposed approach.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Intramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Algorithms
  • Automation, Laboratory
  • Basic Helix-Loop-Helix Transcription Factors / genetics
  • Breast Neoplasms / diagnosis
  • Breast Neoplasms / genetics
  • Breast Neoplasms / pathology*
  • Cell Nucleus / pathology*
  • Cell Nucleus Shape
  • Cytogenetic Analysis / methods
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Image Interpretation, Computer-Assisted*
  • In Situ Hybridization, Fluorescence
  • Mammary Glands, Human / pathology
  • Models, Biological
  • Neural Networks, Computer*
  • Repressor Proteins / genetics


  • Basic Helix-Loop-Helix Transcription Factors
  • Repressor Proteins
  • HES5 protein, human