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N.S. hospital will be first in Canada to screen for colon cancer with AI machine

A Nova Scotia hospital will be the first in Canada to use equipment powered by artificial intelligence that can detect colorectal cancer more quickly, saving lives in the process.

The Dartmouth General Hospital is expecting the arrival of a GI Genius intelligent endoscopy machine in early April, just months after the technology was approved for use in Canada.

It’s a system that scans images taken during a colonoscopy and detects possible pre-cancerous lesions, called polyps, that may otherwise go undetected.

“It’s innovative. It’s going to, I hope, save a lot of Nova Scotian lives. And we’re really excited to bring it to our hospital,” said Dr. Natalie Cheng, medical site lead for Dartmouth General.

n s hospital will be first in canada to screen for colon cancer with ai machine
Dr. Natalie Cheng is the medical site lead for Dartmouth General Hospital. (CBC)

Cheng said early data from the United States suggests that the technology used by the GI Genius can detect 14 per cent more polyps than a regular colonoscopy, during which a doctor assesses images with the naked eye.

The artificial intelligence in the system learns the patterns associated with polyps, and as it finds more of them, its detection rate improves, Cheng said.

Given the high rate of colon cancer in Nova Scotia, Cheng said the technology is especially important. She said about 800 cases were diagnosed in the province last year, and the disease is the second-most common cause of cancer deaths.

If polyps are not caught in time, they can spread to the point of no longer being curable, Cheng said. She said early prevention is actually straightforward because the polyps can be taken out at the same time they’re found.

Colon cancer is also not something that people might notice in the early stages, Cheng added, because the symptoms can be “really subtle.” So anything to help boost detection is crucial.

“It hits such a large portion of our population that I really think that this could make a positive impact in a preventative way,” she said.

The hospital already serves people across the province with a dedicated room for colon cancer screening, as well as two other endoscopy suites.

n s hospital will be first in canada to screen for colon cancer with ai machine 1
The GI Genius is seen in this handout photo. Dartmouth General Hospital is the first in Canada to order the device. (Medtronic)

The new technology will be piloted in Dartmouth to see if it matches the promising results across the border, Cheng said, and she hopes it could be rolled out to other parts of the province.

“We’re so excited to have this here at Dartmouth first,” said Steven Harding, CEO of the Dartmouth General Hospital Foundation.

Harding said the GI Genius, with a $100,000 price tag, has been funded in part by the John and Judy Bragg Innovation Fund and the annual Get Up There! (GUT) event that supports the hospital foundation.

The GUT event is being held in Halifax on April 1, and Harding said any funds raised over and above what’s needed for the GI Genius could go toward a second device if the pilot goes well.

The machine’s distributor, Medtronic, said in a news release that it received a Health Canada licence for the GI Genius in November 2021.

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