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In Journal of pathology informatics ; h5-index 23.0

Background : Due to lack of annotated pathological images, transfer learning has been the predominant approach in the field of digital pathology. Pre-trained neural networks based on ImageNet database are often used to extract "off-the-shelf" features, achieving great success in predicting tissue types, molecular features, and clinical outcomes, etc. We hypothesize that fine-tuning the pre-trained models using histopathological images could further improve feature extraction, and downstream prediction performance.

Methods : We used 100 000 annotated H&E image patches for colorectal cancer (CRC) to fine-tune a pre-trained Xception model via a 2-step approach. The features extracted from fine-tuned Xception (FTX-2048) model and Image-pretrained (IMGNET-2048) model were compared through: (1) tissue classification for H&E images from CRC, same image type that was used for fine-tuning; (2) prediction of immune-related gene expression, and (3) gene mutations for lung adenocarcinoma (LUAD). Five-fold cross validation was used for model performance evaluation. Each experiment was repeated 50 times.

Findings : The extracted features from the fine-tuned FTX-2048 exhibited significantly higher accuracy (98.4%) for predicting tissue types of CRC compared to the "off-the-shelf" features directly from Xception based on ImageNet database (96.4%) (P value = 2.2 × 10-6). Particularly, FTX-2048 markedly improved the accuracy for stroma from 87% to 94%. Similarly, features from FTX-2048 boosted the prediction of transcriptomic expression of immune-related genes in LUAD. For the genes that had significant relationships with image features (P < 0.05, n = 171), the features from the fine-tuned model improved the prediction for the majority of the genes (139; 81%). In addition, features from FTX-2048 improved prediction of mutation for 5 out of 9 most frequently mutated genes (STK11, TP53, LRP1B, NF1, and FAT1) in LUAD.

Conclusions : We proved the concept that fine-tuning the pretrained ImageNet neural networks with histopathology images can produce higher quality features and better prediction performance for not only the same-cancer tissue classification where similar images from the same cancer are used for fine-tuning, but also cross-cancer prediction for gene expression and mutation at patient level.

Li Xingyu, Cen Min, Xu Jinfeng, Zhang Hong, Xu Xu Steven


Colorectal cancer, Deep learning, Fine-tuning, Gene-mutation, H&E image, Lung adenocarcinoma, RNA-seq expression, TCGA dataset, Whole slide images