Waterloo Engineering researcher partners with alumnus on new technology they hope will revolutionize health care

Hamid Tizhoosh was looking for a new idea, a fresh start when he began talking to doctors about how they do their jobs and how they might do them better. 

Hamid Tizhoosh
Hamid Tizhoosh
Professor, Faculty of Engineering
Waterloo.ai, Vector Institute

Six months into his consultations, with his engineering lab at the University of Waterloo reduced to a one-man show by a failed artificial intelligence (AI) startup, he heard something that almost floored him. 

Pathologists in the 21st century still rely on atlases — books of images from biopsy samples — and flip through them for potential matches to help diagnose new cases. Really? Books of old images? That was it, the spark that sent the Systems Design engineering professor roaring down a productive new research path. “They were using a very Stone Age type of search,” he recalls. “When I learned that, I said, ‘For heaven’s sake, we should do this automatically. It is an image search. Computers can do it.’”  

Seven years later, Tizhoosh has turned that basic concept into new technology he hopes will revolutionize health care by giving doctors a simple, powerful tool to help diagnose, treat and research disease via search in large medical image archives. 

Partnering with industry to secure $3.14 million 

And working with him to realize that goal is a local company, Huron Digital Pathology of St. Jacobs, that he approached for backing when his early work started showing promise. 

Huron is the industrial partner in a consortium led by Tizhoosh and researchers in his Laboratory for Knowledge Inference in Medical Image Analysis (KIMIA Lab) which secured $3.14 million in funding through the Ontario Research Fund: Research Excellence program in 2018. 

The money is important, but both sides stress the relationship goes well beyond Huron providing $500,000 (cash and inkind) for research over five years in exchange for commercialization rights. 

In addition to being a shareholder and AI advisor to the company, Tizhoosh helped hire its engineers and rolled up his sleeves to work booths at conferences and trade shows. 

“We lift the KIMIA lab up, the KIMIA lab lifts us up and, of course, the University of Waterloo is a fantastic calling card,” says Patrick Myles (BA ’87), the CEO of Huron. “We open doors for each other. 

“And on a personal level, Hamid and I almost finish each other’s sentences. We’re both out there telling the story of how this wonderful technology can make lives better and doctors more efficient.” 

Search engine combs archives for close matches 

The technology at the heart of the partnership is essentially a specialized search engine that allows doctors to comb archives of digital images of tissue samples for the closest matches to new cases. 

The original images contain massive amounts of digital data, so the search is only possible because Tizhoosh came up with a way of using AI to identify key features and convert them into bunches of barcodes. 

That reduces the size of images to a tiny fraction of the originals and indexes them, enabling the search engine to find matches in archives of millions of images in a split second using ordinary computers. 

“We designed the search from the beginning to be super-efficient, to do this without heavy-duty computational power,” Tizhoosh says. 

By finding similar images, the search engine instantly connects doctors to a treasure trove of information on old cases — the diagnosis report, the treatment plan, the eventual outcome — that is now just sitting in archives. 

Myles compares it to turning a giant pile of random books into a library structured and organized using the old Dewey Decimal System. 

“Our search engine unlocks all of the data that already exists,” he says. “It’s really a knowledge-sharing tool.” 

A hint of its potential came last fall when the KIMIA Lab was selected by the World Health Organization to contribute to a global research project on cancer categorization using its image-retrieval technology. 

Waterloo tech will modernize the world’s largest tissue archive 

Around the same time, the United States military signed on as Huron’s first paying customer to modernize the Joint Pathology Centre, home to the largest collection of preserved tissue samples in the world. 

That deal put the project two years ahead of schedule in terms of commercialization, but Tizhoosh is convinced they have still only scratched the surface. 

He looks forward to the day the system is used everywhere — including areas of the developing world where pathologists are especially scarce — to virtually eliminate diagnostic error, personalize treatment plans, and fuel drug development. 

“I think we’re only at the very beginning, to be honest,” Tizhoosh says. “I believe this is a disruptive technology that will eventually touch every area of the medical field. 

“Even we don’t know what the full impact of image search in medical archives will be. Every time we talk to doctors, they give us new ideas.” 

Modified UW Story. Original text: By Brian Caldwell – Faculty of Engineering