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AI could transform cancer diagnosis, says prime minister

Theresa May says artificial intelligence could revolutionise diagnosis of chronic diseases and save 22,000 lives a year by 2033

Prime minister Theresa May is set to call on the NHS, health charities and the artificial intelligence (AI) sector to utilise emerging technologies to transform the diagnosis of chronic diseases.

Speaking in Macclesfield on 21 May, the prime minister will announce plans, as part of the government’s industrial strategy, to improve early diagnosis of a range of cancers through the use of big data and AI.  

The plans, the government said, will see “at least 50,000 people” each year being able to get an early diagnosis of several cancers – including prostate, ovarian, lung and bowel cancer – which it believes will save around 20,000 lives each year by 2033.

The government sees data as key to improving early diagnosis, where clinicians can cross-reference genetics, personal habits and medical records with nationally held data to spot early stages of cancer, and being able to refer patients to oncology “even ahead of clear symptoms developing”.

May is expected to say that late diagnosis of “otherwise treatable illnesses is one of the biggest causes of avoidable deaths”.

“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,” she will say.

“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.”

The UK government is aiming for the country to become the number one destination for AI, and in the industrial strategy it announced a £1bn AI sector deal.

As Computer Weekly has reported previously, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport also announced £300m funding for data science, with £210m being pumped into a “data to early diagnosis and precision medicine programme”, which aims to improve diagnosis and develop new medical technologies, diagnostic tools and products.

In April, the government also committed a further £300m to AI, which will be used to support new research projects to complement the new Centres for Doctoral Training. 

The NHS, however, is not currently ready for AI, according to experts, who have warned that poor-quality datasets in the NHS could hamper the development of AI algorithms for healthcare. 

In April, health secretary Jeremy Hunt launched a review into how to best train staff across the NHS to use new technologies.

The review, which is being led by American cardiologist, geneticist and digital medicine expert Eric Topol, will cover a range of technologies, including AI, robotics, genomics and digital medicine. 

Read more about AI in healthcare

  • Artificial intelligence could ease the pressures on the NHS, but first the service needs fully integrated health records and to tackle challenges around trust and data. 
  • IT providers will need access to datasets from NHS Digital to create artificial intelligence algorithms, but they should be held accountable for the systems they develop, says report. 
  • The next five to 10 years will see massive disruptions in the healthcare space, with artificial intelligence playing an increasing role in diagnosis and treatment by 2030, a report predicts. 

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