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In Journal of pathology informatics ; h5-index 23.0

Background : Considerable inter- and intra-laboratory stain variability exists in pathology, representing a challenge in development and application of deep learning (DL) approaches. Since tackling all sources of stain variability with manual annotation is not feasible, we here investigated and compared unsupervised DL approaches to reduce the consequences of stain variability in kidney pathology.

Methods : We aimed to improve the applicability of a pretrained DL segmentation model to 3 external multi-centric cohorts with large stain variability. In contrast to the traditional approach of training generative adversarial networks (GAN) for stain normalization, we here propose to tackle stain variability by data augmentation. We augment the training data of the pretrained model by the stain variability using CycleGANs and then retrain the model on the stain-augmented dataset. We compared the performance of i/ the unmodified pretrained segmentation model with ii/ CycleGAN-based stain normalization, iii/ a feature-preserving modification to ii/ for improved normalization, and iv/ the proposed stain-augmented model.

Results : The proposed stain-augmented model showed highest mean segmentation accuracy in all external cohorts and maintained comparable performance on the training cohort. However, the increase in performance was only marginal compared to the pretrained model. CycleGAN-based stain normalization suffered from encoded imperceptible information into the normalizations that confused the pretrained model and thus resulted in slightly worse performance.

Conclusions : Our findings suggest that stain variability can be tackled more effectively by augmenting data by it than by following the commonly used approach of normalizing the stain. However, the applicability of this approach providing only a rather slight performance increase has to be weighted against an additional carbon footprint.

Bouteldja Nassim, Hölscher David L, Bülow Roman D, Roberts Ian S D, Coppo Rosanna, Boor Peter


Deep learning, Digital pathology, Kidney, Segmentation, Stain augmentation, Stain normalization