We hear so much about how technology is transforming life as we know it - from autonomous vehicles to the prospect of space travel to Mars - so why then does the treatment of disease still represent one of the greatest unmet human needs?
Many of us have lived through the agonising experience of someone we love suffering from a disease that has no cure. And the realisation that if that disease is not a candidate for a blockbuster drug, there won’t be a medicine developed for it anytime soon.
We are are also living in a time where our lives will likely extend well into our 90s, far beyond what we imagined when we were young. But while we may well live longer, research is warning us we’ll suffer from more ill-health. The number of older people suffering from diseases like cancer or dementia is predicted to double in less than 20 years. Worryingly, studies also predict we can expect a massive expansion in the number of people suffering from multiple diseases as the same time, known as “multi-morbidity”.
I have witnessed my share of tech revolutions, and I can tell you that artificial intelligence has the potential to bring about the change that we so desperately need in healthcare. Artificial intelligence is augmenting human intelligence in ways we never thought possible. Giving us superpowers to move beyond the limits of our intelligence to discover breakthrough treatments for diseases we have been unable to cure.
Artificial intelligence is already part of our everyday lives. We have it on our phones through Siri, we have it in our homes with Alexa and Google Home and of course, in Spotify, Netflix and Amazon. So why has technology not yet made a big impact in medicine? The simple explanation is that understanding the underlying cause of a disease, let alone finding a cure for it, is incredibly difficult. The human body is one of the most complex systems on the planet, and despite our best efforts to unravel this complexity, it is still poorly understood.
Consider this. We humans consist of just over 200 different cell types, and around six feet of unique DNA. Whilst these numbers grab our attention and highlight our complexity as living ecosystems, they can also conflict and confuse us. Our human brains are intrinsically limited and haven’t evolved to process more than a few simple thoughts at the same time.
Our own company’s work in ALS, also known as motor neurone disease, supports this. It’s a very challenging and devastating disease that destroys the nervous system and currently has no cure. It is poorly understood and enormously complicated. There are 30 genes associated with this disease but 85% of patients do not have any of those genes making it incredibly difficult to find treatments that work across such diverse patient populations. Using our platform, we have recently reached an important milestone identifying novel targets and we are now collaborating with SITraN, a world-leading ALS treatment centre in Sheffield to develop a compound.
Without technological advances, we can’t hope to cure disease. We need a technology that can continuously read every piece of data, from unstructured and structured biomedical information, to academic papers to compound databases. And then we need it to contextualise the information, to tell us what it means.
Artificial Intelligence can help us uncover relationships between diseases and symptoms, drugs and their effect, patient endotypes - responders and non-responders and much more. Relationships that would previously not have been uncovered due to the overwhelming volume of biomedical information and the inherent complexity of the terrain.
But this isn’t just about running code on powerful computers. You can’t develop and test drugs in the cloud. We need to give this evidence-backed information to world-class scientists to bring engineering and drug discovery together, to create something that’s radically more valuable than the sum of its parts.
In biology and life sciences, we are about to experience an extraordinary period of innovation, at the pace we’ve seen in other data-rich fields, powered by advances in computer science and engineering. Interestingly, in the field of machine intelligence. I don’t believe that this revolution will be driven by the traditional drug discovery and development industry for the same reason that explains why each one of the major industry disruptions that we’ve seen in the past decade wasn’t created by an incumbent.
Amazon, which became a trillion-dollar company recently, wasn’t invented by a retailer. Uber wasn’t invented by a limousine company. Netflix wasn’t invented by a TV network. LinkedIn wasn’t invented by a recruiting firm. We simply can’t rely on traditional incumbents to lead the revolution.
Every day, we push the boundaries of artificial intelligence and machine learning to unlock the power of decades of research to understand the underlying cause of disease and develop new treatments for patients. In an age of unprecedented technological advancement, I believe it’s our obligation to find new ways to treat even the most challenging diseases.
Baroness Shields is chief executive officer of BenevolentAI, former minister and peer in the House of Lords