Image analysis and machine learning in digital pathology: Challenges and opportunities

Med Image Anal. 2016 Oct;33:170-175. doi: 10.1016/ Epub 2016 Jul 4.


With the rise in whole slide scanner technology, large numbers of tissue slides are being scanned and represented and archived digitally. While digital pathology has substantial implications for telepathology, second opinions, and education there are also huge research opportunities in image computing with this new source of "big data". It is well known that there is fundamental prognostic data embedded in pathology images. The ability to mine "sub-visual" image features from digital pathology slide images, features that may not be visually discernible by a pathologist, offers the opportunity for better quantitative modeling of disease appearance and hence possibly improved prediction of disease aggressiveness and patient outcome. However the compelling opportunities in precision medicine offered by big digital pathology data come with their own set of computational challenges. Image analysis and computer assisted detection and diagnosis tools previously developed in the context of radiographic images are woefully inadequate to deal with the data density in high resolution digitized whole slide images. Additionally there has been recent substantial interest in combining and fusing radiologic imaging and proteomics and genomics based measurements with features extracted from digital pathology images for better prognostic prediction of disease aggressiveness and patient outcome. Again there is a paucity of powerful tools for combining disease specific features that manifest across multiple different length scales. The purpose of this review is to discuss developments in computational image analysis tools for predictive modeling of digital pathology images from a detection, segmentation, feature extraction, and tissue classification perspective. We discuss the emergence of new handcrafted feature approaches for improved predictive modeling of tissue appearance and also review the emergence of deep learning schemes for both object detection and tissue classification. We also briefly review some of the state of the art in fusion of radiology and pathology images and also combining digital pathology derived image measurements with molecular "omics" features for better predictive modeling. The review ends with a brief discussion of some of the technical and computational challenges to be overcome and reflects on future opportunities for the quantitation of histopathology.

Keywords: Deep learning; Digital pathology; Omics; Radiology.

Publication types

  • Editorial
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted*
  • Machine Learning*
  • Pathology / trends*
  • Precision Medicine / trends
  • Radiology / trends
  • Telepathology