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Medical professionals say artificial intelligence programs may be able to predict ulcerative colitis flare-ups. Morsa Images/Getty Images
  • Researchers say an artificial intelligence program has shown promise in predicting ulcerative colitis flare-ups.
  • They say the tool could be more cost-effective and deliver results more quickly than current tests.
  • Experts note that diagnostic tools and treatments for the condition are limited at the moment.

An artificial intelligence (AI) tool shows promise in predicting active disease and flare-ups in people with ulcerative colitis, according to a new study published in Gastroenterology.

Researchers from the Institute of Immunology and Immunotherapy at the University of Birmingham in England and the University College Cork in Ireland developed a computer-aided diagnostic tool to predict the risk of a flare-up in people with ulcerative colitis.

The scientists programmed the system using existing digitized biopsies previously taken for diagnostic purposes. It looked for inflammation markers and white blood cells, which increase when the immune system is activated.

The researchers said the AI system predicted:

  • Disease activity related to ulcerative colitis with 89% accuracy
  • Inflammation at the site of the biopsy with 80% accuracy

The researchers said the results are similar to what a pathologist would find, indicating the AI system could correctly identify and predict flares.

The researchers said the value of using an AI system includes:

Consistent results – Currently, there isn’t a standard for testing for white blood cells as a predictor of flares. Results come from a pathologist’s interpretation, which could provide varied results.

Faster results – Healthcare professionals and patients must wait for results from a pathologist. The speed of the results depends on how quickly a lab can complete the testing and review of the biopsy.

The scientists noted that digitized biopsies, non-invasive procedures completed by imaging, are still not widely available but are becoming more accepted by medical professionals.

Using the AI tool could also be more cost-efficient.

“One of the more difficult parts of treating ulcerative colitis is assessing and measuring improvement in endoscopy and histology,” said Dr. David Hudesman, the medical director of the Inflammatory Bowel Disease Center at NYU Langone Health. “We do not know how much improvement is associated with improved long-term outcomes (does a patient need complete healing or is 50% good enough?).”

“This study showed that AI can predict endoscopy and histology scores with good accuracy, as well as one-year patient outcomes,” Hudesman told Healthline. “If this is validated in larger studies, AI can help determine if we should adjust/change therapies or continue, which is very important.”

Ulcerative colitis is a lifelong disease affecting the large intestine, according to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation.

The condition causes the lining of the intestine to become inflamed and develop tiny sores.

Ulcerative colitis is an immune-mediated disease, meaning that the immune system overreacts and attacks the intestine.

Not everyone has the same symptoms and the same severity of symptoms.

However, according to the National Institutes of Health, common symptoms include the following:

  • Diarrhea
  • Blood in your stools
  • Abdominal cramping and pain
  • Constant urge to have a bowel movement
  • Urgent need to have a bowel movement

In addition to symptoms directly related to the intestines, people with ulcerative colitis often experience:

  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Weight loss

Many people with the disease have periods of remission, possibly due to medications, where symptoms disappear. Remission can last for days, weeks, or even years. Symptoms can suddenly reappear at any time.

There is not one specific screening test to diagnose ulcerative colitis.

Medical professionals use several tools, such as:

  • Blood tests
  • Stool tests
  • Endoscopy with biopsy, including colonoscopy or flexible sigmoidoscopy

Tests look for the presence of infection, inflammation, and ulcers in the lining of the large intestine.

“Typical treatments include steroids and immunomodulator medications, for example, Humira and Remicade,” said Dr. Hardeep Singh, a gastroenterologist with Providence St Joseph Hospital in California.

Some people with ulcerative colitis find that certain foods, such as spicy foods, aggravate the condition.

“There’s no specific diet for patients with ulcerative colitis,” Singh told Healthline. “When patients have a flare, they should be on a low fiber/low residue diet. Once the flare has passed, and the inflammation has resolved, patients should be able to resume a normal diet. In general, things that irritate the colon, such as caffeine and alcohol, should be kept to a minimum. Beyond that, there is no specific diet that has been shown to minimize flares of ulcerative colitis.”