Main idea: Convolutional neural networks have the potential to build a well performing CT-based biomarker for lymph node metastases in prostate cancer, with different types of class balancing strongly affecting CNN performance.
Lymphatic spread determines treatment decisions in prostate cancer (PCa) patients. 68Ga-PSMA-PET/CT can be performed, although cost remains high and availability is limited. Therefore, computed tomography (CT) continues to be the most used modality for PCa staging. We assessed if convolutional neural networks (CNNs) can be trained to determine 68Ga-PSMA-PET/CT-lymph node status from CT alone. In 549 patients with 68Ga-PSMA PET/CT imaging, 2616 lymph nodes were segmented. Using PET as a reference standard, three CNNs were trained. Training sets balanced for infiltration status, lymph node location and additionally, masked images, were used for training. CNNs were evaluated using a separate test set and performance was compared to radiologists’ assessments and random forest classifiers. Heatmaps maps were used to identify the performance determining image regions. The CNNs performed with an Area-Under-the-Curve of 0.95 (status balanced) and 0.86 (location balanced, masked), compared to an AUC of 0.81 of experienced radiologists. Interestingly, CNNs used anatomical surroundings to increase their performance, “learning” the infiltration probabilities of anatomical locations.