Importance: Immunohistochemistry (IHC) is the most widely used assay for identification of molecular biomarkers. However, IHC is time consuming and costly, depends on tissue-handling protocols, and relies on pathologists' subjective interpretation. Image analysis by machine learning is gaining ground for various applications in pathology but has not been proposed to replace chemical-based assays for molecular detection.
Objective: To assess the prediction feasibility of molecular expression of biomarkers in cancer tissues, relying only on tissue architecture as seen in digitized hematoxylin-eosin (H&E)-stained specimens.
Design, setting, and participants: This single-institution retrospective diagnostic study assessed the breast cancer tissue microarrays library of patients from Vancouver General Hospital, British Columbia, Canada. The study and analysis were conducted from July 1, 2015, through July 1, 2018. A machine learning method, termed morphological-based molecular profiling (MBMP), was developed. Logistic regression was used to explore correlations between histomorphology and biomarker expression, and a deep convolutional neural network was used to predict the biomarker expression in examined tissues.
Main outcomes and measures: Positive predictive value (PPV), negative predictive value (NPV), and area under the receiver operating characteristics curve measures of MBMP for assessment of molecular biomarkers.
Results: The database consisted of 20 600 digitized, publicly available H&E-stained sections of 5356 patients with breast cancer from 2 cohorts. The median age at diagnosis was 61 years for cohort 1 (412 patients) and 62 years for cohort 2 (4944 patients), and the median follow-up was 12.0 years and 12.4 years, respectively. Tissue histomorphology was significantly correlated with the molecular expression of all 19 biomarkers assayed, including estrogen receptor (ER), progesterone receptor (PR), and ERBB2 (formerly HER2). Expression of ER was predicted for 105 of 207 validation patients in cohort 1 (50.7%) and 1059 of 2046 validation patients in cohort 2 (51.8%), with PPVs of 97% and 98%, respectively, NPVs of 68% and 76%, respectively, and accuracy of 91% and 92%, respectively, which were noninferior to traditional IHC (PPV, 91%-98%; NPV, 51%-78%; and accuracy, 81%-90%). Diagnostic accuracy improved given more data. Morphological analysis of patients with ER-negative/PR-positive status by IHC revealed resemblance to patients with ER-positive status (Bhattacharyya distance, 0.03) and not those with ER-negative/PR-negative status (Bhattacharyya distance, 0.25). This suggests a false-negative IHC finding and warrants antihormonal therapy for these patients.
Conclusions and relevance: For at least half of the patients in this study, MBMP appeared to predict biomarker expression with noninferiority to IHC. Results suggest that prediction accuracy is likely to improve as data used for training expand. Morphological-based molecular profiling could be used as a general approach for mass-scale molecular profiling based on digitized H&E-stained images, allowing quick, accurate, and inexpensive methods for simultaneous profiling of multiple biomarkers in cancer tissues.