Mar 26, 2019

A photographer is taking a photo of the back of a patient for AI-enabled leprosy detection

The Novartis Foundation and Microsoft are partnering to develop an Artificial Intelligence (AI)-enabled Digital Health tool and a Leprosy Intelligent Image Atlas to aid in the early detection of leprosy. Over 200,000 people are diagnosed with leprosy every year. Brazil, India, and Indonesia account for about 80% of new cases. If untreated, patients are left with lifelong disabilities and are often stigmatized in their societies.

Microsoft and the Novartis Foundation will collaborate with local investigators from Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz) in Brazil to develop a protocol to examine anonymized images collected by Fiocruz. This will include a high-resolution image and metadata capture protocol to process leprosy skin lesion images.

The imagery and AI code are planned to be made publicly accessible at a later stage to empower leprosy researchers to accelerate research excellence in this field, leading to better outcomes.

“This partnership is expected to demonstrate how digital health technology can have a transformative impact on global health challenges. Together, we aim to accelerate leprosy detection in order to prevent patients from developing nerve damage. Bundling expertise from the health and tech sectors to pioneer innovative digital health solutions such as this one, can make it possible to reimagine the way we fight leprosy. Early detection and prompt treatment of patients remains the best way to interrupt leprosy transmission,” said Dr. Ann Aerts, Head of Novartis Foundation. “Together with Microsoft we are pioneering an innovative digital tool to accelerate leprosy detection, to make this ancient disease history once and for all.”

The publication of the first version of the image atlas is planned for mid-2019.

About leprosy

Leprosy is one of the oldest diseases known to man, but today an estimated 2-3 million people are still living with physical disability and stigmatization as a result of the disease. The disease often occurs in hard-to-reach communities with poor access to healthcare, where untreated patients continue to spread the infection. For the past decade, over 200,000 people have been newly diagnosed with the disease each year – including thousands of children. This lack of progress partly results from dwindling attention from health services and a decrease in political will, funding and the absence of new tools to fight the disease. It demonstrates the urgent need for the global health community to join forces and unite our efforts to interrupt further spread of the disease.

The Novartis Foundation and leprosy

For over 30 years, Novartis and the Novartis Foundation have been working with partners around the world to eliminate leprosy. The introduction of multidrug therapy (MDT) in 1981 has helped lead to a 99% reduction in the global burden of leprosy. MDT has been donated for free by Novartis since 2000, reaching almost 7 million patients to date. The donation is part of the Novartis commitment to the London Declaration on Neglected Tropical Diseases. The Novartis Foundation is founding member of the newly established Global Partnership for Zero Leprosy, aiming to interrupt transmission and achieve zero new leprosy cases.

More information

Watch this short video about how Novartis and the Novartis Foundation are working to make leprosy history.

View this photo essay on The Guardian about tackling leprosy in the Philippines.