What is the state of the art of computer vision-assisted cytology? A Systematic Literature Review

Comput Med Imaging Graph. 2021 Jul;91:101934. doi: 10.1016/j.compmedimag.2021.101934. Epub 2021 May 15.


Cytology is a low-cost and non-invasive diagnostic procedure employed to support the diagnosis of a broad range of pathologies. Cells are harvested from tissues by aspiration or scraping, and it is still predominantly performed manually by medical or laboratory professionals extensively trained for this purpose. It is a time-consuming and repetitive process where many diagnostic criteria are subjective and vulnerable to human interpretation. Computer Vision technologies, by automatically generating quantitative and objective descriptions of examinations' contents, can help minimize the chances of misdiagnoses and shorten the time required for analysis. To identify the state-of-art of computer vision techniques currently applied to cytology, we conducted a Systematic Literature Review, searching for approaches for the segmentation, detection, quantification, and classification of cells and organelles using computer vision on cytology slides. We analyzed papers published in the last 4 years. The initial search was executed in September 2020 and resulted in 431 articles. After applying the inclusion/exclusion criteria, 157 papers remained, which we analyzed to build a picture of the tendencies and problems present in this research area, highlighting the computer vision methods, staining techniques, evaluation metrics, and the availability of the used datasets and computer code. As a result, we identified that the most used methods in the analyzed works are deep learning-based (70 papers), while fewer works employ classic computer vision only (101 papers). The most recurrent metric used for classification and object detection was the accuracy (33 papers and 5 papers), while for segmentation it was the Dice Similarity Coefficient (38 papers). Regarding staining techniques, Papanicolaou was the most employed one (130 papers), followed by H&E (20 papers) and Feulgen (5 papers). Twelve of the datasets used in the papers are publicly available, with the DTU/Herlev dataset being the most used one. We conclude that there still is a lack of high-quality datasets for many types of stains and most of the works are not mature enough to be applied in a daily clinical diagnostic routine. We also identified a growing tendency towards adopting deep learning-based approaches as the methods of choice.

Keywords: Classification; Computer vision; Cytology; Deep learning; Segmentation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Computers*
  • Humans