Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Segmentation of epidermal tissue with histopathological damage in images of haematoxylin and eosin stained human skin

Juliana M Haggerty12*, Xiao N Wang3, Anne Dickinson23, Chris J O’Malley1 and Elaine B Martin1

Author Affiliations

1 Biopharmaceutical Bioprocessing Technology Centre, Chemical Engineering and Advanced Materials, Newcastle University, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK

2 Alcyomics Ltd. Framlington Place, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK

3 Institute of Cellular Medicine, Newcastle University, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK

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BMC Medical Imaging 2014, 14:7  doi:10.1186/1471-2342-14-7

Published: 12 February 2014



Digital image analysis has the potential to address issues surrounding traditional histological techniques including a lack of objectivity and high variability, through the application of quantitative analysis. A key initial step in image analysis is the identification of regions of interest. A widely applied methodology is that of segmentation. This paper proposes the application of image analysis techniques to segment skin tissue with varying degrees of histopathological damage. The segmentation of human tissue is challenging as a consequence of the complexity of the tissue structures and inconsistencies in tissue preparation, hence there is a need for a new robust method with the capability to handle the additional challenges materialising from histopathological damage.


A new algorithm has been developed which combines enhanced colour information, created following a transformation to the L*a*b* colourspace, with general image intensity information. A colour normalisation step is included to enhance the algorithm’s robustness to variations in the lighting and staining of the input images. The resulting optimised image is subjected to thresholding and the segmentation is fine-tuned using a combination of morphological processing and object classification rules. The segmentation algorithm was tested on 40 digital images of haematoxylin & eosin (H&E) stained skin biopsies. Accuracy, sensitivity and specificity of the algorithmic procedure were assessed through the comparison of the proposed methodology against manual methods.


Experimental results show the proposed fully automated methodology segments the epidermis with a mean specificity of 97.7%, a mean sensitivity of 89.4% and a mean accuracy of 96.5%. When a simple user interaction step is included, the specificity increases to 98.0%, the sensitivity to 91.0% and the accuracy to 96.8%. The algorithm segments effectively for different severities of tissue damage.


Epidermal segmentation is a crucial first step in a range of applications including melanoma detection and the assessment of histopathological damage in skin. The proposed methodology is able to segment the epidermis with different levels of histological damage. The basic method framework could be applied to segmentation of other epithelial tissues.

Histopathology; Histopathological damage; Segmentation; Epidermis; Colour space; Mathematical morphology; Classification; Design of experiments