Artificial Intelligence and Algorithms Fight Cancer


SEATTLE, Wash. (Ivanhoe Newswire) — For the last 40 years, doctors have treated patients with acute myeloid leukemia, or AML, with a few chemotherapy drugs.  Only 25 percent of them survive for five years. Now, researchers at the University of Washington have brought computers and artificial intelligence into the mix.

Candice Ferro was diagnosed with AML about a year ago. She had chemo, radiation and a bone marrow transplant.

“I feel so much better, like healthier,” Ferro said.

Her doctor chose Ferro’s drugs because of a gene mutation she has, and may soon get to use even more precise information. Professor Su-In Lee and her team of researchers are developing a cancer algorithm called Merge.

“Merge is an AI algorithm that can automatically learn from large amounts of data and complex biological knowledge how to choose the best drug for an individual cancer patient,” said Su-In Lee, PhD, Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at University of Washington School of Medicine.

Merge gets its data from Lee’s study of 42 AML patients and from many large-scale studies funded by the NIH. Candice’s doctor then tests leukemia cells against 150 drugs and drug combinations.

Pamela Becker, MD, PhD, Professor of Medicine at University of Washington School of Medicine said, “After 72 hours, we would check if the cells survived those drugs or didn’t survive those drugs, and then we would find out which drugs might work best for that patient.” (Read Full Interview)

Lee says Merge is a successful algorithm, partly because there’s so much patient information to use.

“Data are becoming more and more available,” Lee stated.

Ferro has been in three clinical trials that could bring precision medicine for AML even more quickly. Now, she feels free to make plans with her son.

“I feel like I got a lot of time to make up for!” Ferro shared.

Dr. Becker and Professor Lee’s collaboration is only in the lab right now. They are looking forward to new trials, both to find out why the algorithm chooses certain drugs, and to eventually test it on patients who are newly diagnosed.

Contributors to this news report include: Wendy Chioji, Field Producer; Rusty Reed, Videographer; Cyndy McGrath, Supervising Producer; Hayley Hudson, Assistant Producer; Roque Correa, Editor.


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BACKGROUND: Cancer is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells anywhere in a body. There are over­­ 200 types of cancer. Anything that may cause a normal body cell to develop abnormally can potentially cause cancer. Inherited genetic defects, infections, environmental factors such as air pollution, and poor lifestyle choices such as smoking and heavy alcohol use can damage DNA and lead to cancer. Signs and symptoms depend on the specific type and grade of cancer and can include fatigue, weight loss, pain, skin changes, and changes in bowel or bladder function. There are many tests to screen and presumptively diagnose cancer, though the definite diagnosis is made by examination of a biopsy sample of suspected cancer tissue. Some cancers are diagnosed during routine screening examinations. Many cancers are discovered when a patient presents specific symptoms to their health care professional.



TREATMENT AND PREVENTION: Cancer treatment is based on the type of cancer and the stage of the cancer. Diagnosis and treatment may occur at the same time if the cancer is entirely surgically removed when the surgeon removes the tissue for biopsy. Most treatments involve surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or a combination of two or all three approaches. Patients with cancers that cannot be completely removed will usually get combination therapy specific to the cancer type and stage. Terminally ill cancer patients can receive treatments to extend and improve their quality of life. Avoiding smoking, heavy alcohol use, and excess sunlight are excellent ways to avoid cancer. People who work close to cancer-causing agents (chemical workers, X-ray technicians, ionizing radiation researchers, asbestos workers) should follow all safety precautions and minimize exposure to such compounds.



ACUTE MYELOID LEUKEMIA: Leukemias are cancers that start in cells that would normally develop into different types of blood cells. Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) can progress quickly if not treated, and would probably be fatal in a few months. AML starts in the bone marrow, but in most cases it quickly moves into the blood. It can sometimes spread to other parts of the body including the lymph nodes, liver, spleen, central nervous system (brain and spinal cord), and testicles. The main treatment for AML is chemotherapy, sometimes along with a targeted therapy drug. This might be followed by a stem cell transplant. Surgery and radiation therapy may also be used in special circumstances. Treatment for AML can continue for months or years. Even after treatment ends, a patient will need frequent follow-up exams. Follow-up is needed to check for cancer recurrence, as well as possible side effects of certain treatments.




Bobbi Nodell


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Doctor Q and A

Read the entire Doctor Q&A for Pamela Becker, MD, PhD

Read the entire Q&A