LOOKING for needles in haystacks is boring. But computers do not get bored. Contracting out to machines the tedious business of assessing the dangerousness of cancer cells in histological microscope slides ought thus to be an obvious thing to do. Cervical-cancer smear tests aside, however, such electronic intrusions into the pathology laboratory are limited. Grading cancer cells into “indolent” and “aggressive”, and hazarding an opinion about whether they spell a treatable condition or an untreatable one, has remained the realm of the human expert.
But not for much longer, if Daphne Koller, a computer scientist at Stanford University, and her colleagues have their way. They recently reported in Science Translational Medicine that they have written a program which can distinguish between grades of breast-cancer cell—and in a way that provides a more accurate prognosis than a human pathologist can.