Cancer is a complex and uncontrollable beast that mutates and changes the goalposts before you get into the politics and economics surrounding the issue.
There isn’t just one cancer either – the homogenous term is misleading into thinking the problem is even solvable.
Scientists and technologists alike are seeing hope though - not through increased funding but technological advancement in the form of Artificial Intelligence.
Recently attending CogX - one of the more robust and significant AI conferences in the UK - healthcare was very much on the menu. Medicine is already benefitting greatly from machine learning (a subset of AI) in areas from diagnosis to treatment, and we've barely scratched the surface.
As more and more data becomes available – along with better computers and science – we start to see a shift happening. “Guilty Doctors” according to Professor Joanna Holbrook, Director Translational Biology, BenevolentAI, are now up against a “humanly impossible amount of data anyone to keep up with all the new science and findings in their chosen field. We need AI to do this…how we build trust may mean retrospective studies.”
Computers are fast becoming better at diagnosing ailments like Alzheimer’s, Pneumonia, skin cancer and eye diseases...and the list keeps getting longer. Does this mean you should stop going to your doctor and just ask Alexa?
The short answer is 'No'. While science and the media battle it is up to organizations and regulatory bodies like the NHS, MHRA and FDA to concur tests are valid and them implement these into hospitals etc.
The cost-savings will be enormous but there are other elements to consider like retraining and larger issues such as what do doctors become if machines are better at diagnosis?
The FDA, in fact, have just down-regulated AI to ‘class ii’ which means 'it won't kill you' according to panelists.
Dr Jack Kriendler Founder, Centre for Health and Human Performance is bullish on the technology and already trusts it more than human doctors; “I would sooner today trust computer scientists and data scientists to tell me how to treat a really complex system like cancer than my fellow oncologists. I would not have said that two to three years ago.
The regulatory bodies think very, very differently to that."
Despite billions pouring in to fight the disease, we’ve barely made a dent into furthering life although targeted therapies are causing fewer side effects compared with chemotherapeutic and radiation approaches. While the world would undoubtedly be better off without cancer, big pharma would not, they stand to lose billions when it is 'cured'. How many billion? Numbers vary but in 2015 the spending on cancer medicines was around $107 billion worldwide, according to data from IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics, and this number will swell to $150 billion in 2020.
While no-one on the panel came out and said that big pharma is slowing the progression of AI to cure cancer, doing so makes business sense for big pharma while it figures out how AI will disrupt business as usual. McKinsey (a management consultancy) predicts that big pharma companies could generate +$100 billion using AI annually through R&D alone. AI, in other words, is the future of big pharma but ethics and wisdom need to go hand in hand. Stefan Roever, Co-Founder AIKON, (previously Founder of Genia) confirmed why big pharma might be slow on AI; “Big pharma likes the current regime because it keeps them at the top of the food chain and keeps startups at the bottom.”
Fiona Nielsen, Founder and CEO of Repositive.io (a genomic data company), believes AI curing cancer is a way off, but possible if people get involved; “To ‘really find a cure’ it is important to unlock the data needed to make new discoveries.
There is already plenty of clever algorithms, plenty of clever researchers and clinicians; the speed of discovery will depend on the speed of data availability. This requires an effort from the general public to acknowledge that their health data can contribute to new discoveries: if you have a disease, join a clinical trial, if you are healthy, contribute your data to control studies." Dr Hugh Harvey, Clinical Lead, Kheiron Medical agrees; “Algorithms are the new drugs. We need a whole new progression of medicine. It’s not just the workforce [we need to inform]…it’s the patients too as they’ll be deciders of their own care.”
Nielsen has less faith in people power and believes big pharma companies will use AI to reduce the cost of drug discovery. "[We need to] democratise their research processes.
The democratisation will happen independently of how fast, big pharma adapts their internal processes since the mechanisms for in-silico drug discovery are widely available and access to data becomes easier.
I expect a larger part of the drug discovery pipelines will be taken up by CROs and independent specialised drug discovery companies rather than happen within the large multinational corporates.”
So...can AI eradicate Cancer? Right now, no. In the future?
Thanks to nanotechnology, AI and other technologies that are changing almost monthly we're in good shape but there are real problems with this progress. Understanding, trust and market forces – each will have an impact on development and adoption.
Platforms like Apple Health, 23andMe, MyFitnessPal along with wearable devices are all large disruptive forces in healthcare that most have yet to grapple with. Factor in Google (with DeepMind) and Microsoft (with Hanover) and the health system begins to look very different than the one we see today.
We are fast moving from ‘guilty doctors’ to empowered individuals - a huge societal (and demographic) shift that will come swiftly for younger demographics and harder for older ones who’s authority structures are more rigid. The next ten years will be a slow burn as regulatory bodies butt heads with startups and big pharma figures out its role in the new world that is emerging.Fiona Nielsen, Founder and CEO, Repositive.io