Purpose: This study aims at exploiting artificial intelligence (AI) for the identification, segmentation and quantification of COVID-19 pulmonary lesions. The limited data availability and the annotation quality are relevant factors in training AI-methods. We investigated the effects of using multiple datasets, heterogeneously populated and annotated according to different criteria. Methods: We developed an automated analysis pipeline, the LungQuant system, based on a cascade of two U-nets. The first one (U-net1) is devoted to the identification of the lung parenchyma; the second one (U-net2) acts on a bounding box enclosing the segmented lungs to identify the areas affected by COVID-19 lesions. Different public datasets were used to train the U-nets and to evaluate their segmentation performances, which have been quantified in terms of the Dice Similarity Coefficients. The accuracy in predicting the CT-Severity Score (CT-SS) of the LungQuant system has been also evaluated. Results: Both the volumetric DSC (vDSC) and the accuracy showed a dependency on the annotation quality of the released data samples. On an independent dataset (COVID-19-CT-Seg), both the vDSC and the surface DSC (sDSC) were measured between the masks predicted by LungQuant system and the reference ones. The vDSC (sDSC) values of 0.95±0.01 and 0.66±0.13 (0.95±0.02 and 0.76±0.18, with 5 mm tolerance) were obtained for the segmentation of lungs and COVID-19 lesions, respectively. The system achieved an accuracy of 90% in CT-SS identification on this benchmark dataset. Conclusion: We analysed the impact of using data samples with different annotation criteria in training an AI-based quantification system for pulmonary involvement in COVID-19 pneumonia. In terms of vDSC measures, the U-net segmentation strongly depends on the quality of the lesion annotations. Nevertheless, the CT-SS can be accurately predicted on independent test sets, demonstrating the satisfactory generalization ability of the LungQuant.
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