May backs AI research to cut cancer death toll by 22,000 within 15 years

Artificial intelligence will be harnessed to cut the number of cancer deaths by 22,000 within the next 15 years, Theresa May will say today in a pledge to back cutting-edge technology with new research funding.

Cancer scientist Dr Zuzana Brabcova, left, who had radiotherapy and chemotherapy for cervical cancer diagnosed in 2016, and nurse Gaynor Williams-Hamilton, who survived breast cancer, were the VIP starters for the Race for Life at Glasgow Green yesterday. More than 7,000 women took part in the Cancer Research UK event. Picture: contributed

The Prime Minister will challenge the NHS, charities and the private sector to make it possible for 50,000 more cases of prostate, ovarian, lung and bowel cancer to be diagnosed at an early stage, saving and extending lives using machine learning.

The Scottish capital is leading the way in the field, with scientists at the Edinburgh Centre for Robotics – a joint venture between Edinburgh and Heriot-Watt universities – developing robots that can learn how to identify skin tumours from thousands of images collected from previous cancer patients.

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Organisations working in the field will get a share of £80 billion in additional research funding over the next ten years as government support for science rises to 2.4 per cent of GDP to deliver on its new industrial strategy.

Researchers are using AI to cross-reference information collected on people’s genetics, lifestyle habits and medical records, with national data to make earlier referrals to oncologists and identify cancers before symptoms even develop.

The Edinburgh BioQuarter is home to organisations including the Farr Institute and the Administrative Data Research Centre, which are using huge healthcare volumes of data to transform the way chronic disease is detected.

“Late diagnosis of otherwise treatable illnesses is one of the biggest causes of avoidable deaths,” the Prime Minister will say in a speech in Macclesfield, Cheshire. “And the development of smart technologies to analyse great quantities of data quickly and with a higher degree of accuracy than is possible by human beings opens up a whole new field of medical research and gives us a new weapon in our armoury in the fight against disease.

“Achieving this mission will not only save thousands of lives, it will incubate a whole new industry around AI in healthcare, creating high-skilled science jobs across the country, drawing on existing centres of excellence in places like Edinburgh, Oxford and Leeds – and helping to grow new ones.”

Cancer kills 164,000 people in the UK each year. Sir Harpal Kumar, the chief executive of Cancer Research UK, said government support for AI to improve diagnosis of the disease was “pioneering”.

He said: “Advances in detection technologies depend on the intelligent use of data and have the potential to save hundreds of thousands of lives every year. We need to ensure we have the right infrastructure, embedded in our health system, to make this possible.”