Shaping the future of inflammatory bowel disease diagnosis and management

PhD student investigates role of artificial intelligence in gastroenterology with support from Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship.

Stepheny Zani - 4 September 2020

University of Alberta PhD student Reed Sutton, ’16 BSc, is a recipient of the 2020 CIHR Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship for his project creating a model to assist in the diagnosis of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). The model uses a non-invasive imaging method associated with artificial intelligence. IBD, a disorder caused by chronic inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract, is typically diagnosed by clinician assessment combined with invasive methods such as endoscopy, or imaging methods such as computed tomography (CT) scan of the abdomen. 

Supervised by Daniel Baumgart, divisional director of gastroenterology in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry, Sutton’s project seeks to identify abnormalities in the gastrointestinal tract, such as bowel thickening or active inflammatory focus. This is a process handled typically by radiologists, but Sutton hopes that his model can speed and improve the accuracy of IBD diagnosis, assisting radiologists and therefore relieving some of the burden on the health-care system. 

“It can be used in areas with less access to radiologists, assisting them in analysing the images for specific features of active disease, or even to assist trainees,” explains Sutton.

The Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship is one of the most prestigious graduate student awards in Canada awarded to students who demonstrate leadership and research potential. With a rigorous multi-level application process, the scholarship is a vote of confidence from some of Canada’s top scholars.

The award came as a surprise to Sutton, who sees it as validation and encouragement of the work he has been doing. 

“I’m extremely excited, happy and grateful. It’s a huge honour,” he says.

In addition to improving the diagnosis of IBD, Sutton plans to collect and categorize patient data, including demographics and medication, to create a risk profile based on disease severity. This kind of data should make it easier to predict probable health outcomes for high-risk patients suffering from IBD. This information, accompanied by other tools such as remote monitoring or telehealth, could improve accessibility and patient care for those living in remote areas, he explains. 

“It is always about the potential to have impact,” Sutton says. “If we are successful, it can produce something that will have a significant effect on people’s lives.”

Sutton is a strong believer in the importance of collaboration between fields of study in research and innovation. His project is a great example of the power of such collaboration, in this case between science and computer science. Sutton is grateful for the guidance of Randy Goebel, a professor in the Department of Computing Science and associate vice-president (Research) and associate vice-president (Academic) for the U of A. Goebel is also a Fellow with the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute (Amii), which supports this project.

“We want to set the stage, if this is successful, to show how beneficial it can be to combine these two groups (computer scientists and health researchers) to produce innovation and have a greater impact.”


Sutton’s project is supported by the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute (AMII), FGSR President's Doctoral Prize of Distinction - Top-up award, CIHR Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship - Doctoral Award  and FoMD/AHS Graduate Student Recruitment Studentship.