Cancer treatment

Embrace AI to prevent 22,000 cancer deaths per year, says prime minister

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Theresa May will today lay out government plans to harness the potential of artificial intelligence (AI) in preventing deaths from cancer through earlier detection of the disease.

Along with cardiovascular disease and infectious disease, cancer is among the world’s leading causes of death. According to Cancer Research UK, one in two people born in the UK after 1960 can expect to be diagnosed with some form of cancer during their lifetime.

At a speech in Macclesfield, Cheshire, May will lay out her plans to integrate machine learning tools into health services to improve patients’ chances of surviving the disease. This will involve collaboration between the NHS, charities and the tech sector as patients’ medical records – as well as background information about their genetics and lifestyle – are cross-referenced with large national datasets. These tools can be used in order to identify cancer at the earliest stage possible.

An individual’s risk of developing cancer depends not just on risk factors such as smoking and obesity, but also on unpreventable factors such as age and genetics. Acquiring an early diagnosis significantly improves the chances that treatment will be successful.

In her speech, May is expected to say that the government’s plans could result in at least 50,000 people receiving early-stage diagnoses for some of the most common forms of cancer: ovarian, lung, bowel and prostate cancer. According to cancer experts, this could prevent 22,000 cancer-related deaths a year by 2033.

“Late diagnosis of otherwise treatable illnesses is one of the biggest causes of avoidable deaths,” May will say.

“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.”

According to May, all of the data and technologies necessary to improve the treatment of cancer are available to us, although a system incorporating these tools has not yet been established.

“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.”

“Earlier detection and diagnosis could fundamentally transform outcomes for people with cancer, as well as saving the NHS money,” said Sir Harpal Jumar, CEO of Cancer Research, in a statement.

“The government’s mission to revolutionise healthcare using the power of [AI] is pioneering. Advances in detection technologies depend on the intelligent use of data and have the potential to save hundreds of thousands of lives every year.”

Following the death of former Labour minister Dame Tessa Jowell from brain cancer earlier this month, the government announced that it would be doubling its funding for research into brain cancer to £40m per year in her memory. Cancer Research UK has agreed to include a £25m contribution to the government funding.

May will use her speech to argue that her government will put health innovation at the forefront of its industrial strategy, such that it remains an area of strength following the UK’s exit from the EU. Other aspects of the government’s health strategy will include a pledge to ensure that Britons live an extra five years of healthy, independent and active life by 2035.

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