May champions AI-backed R&D into cancer and chronic disease

Theresa May has pledged to prioritise artificial intelligence (AI) so chronic diseases are diagnosed at an early stage, potentially saving many lives.

The government hopes that AI will help to prevent 22,000 cancer deaths each year by 2033 by detecting prostate, ovarian, lung and bowel cancer at a less serious stage than they would have otherwise been diagnosed.

Such diagnoses would be achieved through using emerging technologies to cross reference people’s genetics, habits and medical records with national data to spot those at risk of, or at an early stage of cancer. This will prompt doctors to make referrals to an oncologist earlier and even ahead of clear symptoms developing.

Prime minister May outlined the plans to prioritise AI at a speech in Macclesfield, saying: “Late diagnosis of otherwise treatable illnesses is one of the biggest causes of avoidable deaths.

“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.”

Pharma calls for better access to medicines

 Mike Thompson

Mike Thompson, chief executive of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) welcomed the announcement. He said, “Our research shows that the UK lags behind the rest of Europe for five-year survival rates for many common cancers and is the worst in the EU for lung cancer.

“Improving rates of early diagnosis will undoubtedly improve the outlook for cancer patients in the UK but it must be done alongside other important factors like making sure patients also have swift access to the newest and most innovative cancer treatments, including medicines.”

Jackie Hunter, CEO of healthcare AI firm, BenevolentBio, echoed this. She said: “AI could revolutionise all aspects of healthcare – not only in delivery and early diagnosis of disease but also with finding and delivering new medicines.

“It is also important that the UK maximises its human capital and ensures that all students have the ability to study data science and its applications in a range of areas including healthcare,” she added.

AI is one of the four ‘grand challenges’ at the heart of the government’s industrial strategy. These aim to ensure that the UK takes advantage of global changes, improving people’s lives and the country’s productivity.

AstraZeneca is one of the companies partnering with the NHS on its grand challenges in areas such as earlier diagnosis, the use of genomics to identify diseases, and to develop new medicines and technologies.

A spokesperson said, “We believe that the new funding in this space from the government will help give the UK a competitive advantage by incorporating paired genetic, clinical and biomarker data from NHS data to unlock the role of genetics in human health and therefore bring new and innovative medicines to patients earlier driving better health outcomes.”

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