Research + Technology + Dollars: New Progress Toward a Cancer Cure?

Patient Expert

Credit: Chan Zuckerberg Initiative

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, recentlypledged $3 billion to “cure all diseases in our children’s lifetime.”

Former Facebook president and multi-billionaire Sean Parker has promised $250 million to six different cancer centers to fund research on cancer’s hot new field,immunotherapy_. _

Microsoft has establishedProject Hanover, a far-reaching, worldwide effort to cure cancer within 10 years.

What if the brilliant minds who’ve helped usher in the world’s digital age turned their talents to curing cancer?

There are thousands of learned scientists who’ve devoted lifetimes to researching cancer in search of the elusive cure. And their efforts have borne fruit: every experiment and trial a researcher conducts is a building block for the next breakthrough.

But these researchers are only human; and there are only so many hours in a day.

Enter computer technology. Microsoft has undertaken an ambitious research project, one that could A) flop on its face as a result of arrogance and ignorance, as some in the science community would have it, or B) cure cancer within 10 years, according to Microsoft itself.

Project Hanover

Just part of Microsoft’s larger cancer effort, the goals of this project are threefold:

  • To turn the world’s vast quantity of medical research, currently available only as printed materials or digital documents, into a searchable database of information.
  • To improve treatment for acute myeloid leukemia, one of the most stubborn cancers, by developing artificial intelligence (AI) technology to personalize drug combinations for each patient.
  • To use that same AI technology to predict who might get what type of cancer, and thus to help prevent it.

Speeding up research

What if biologists could use the power of technology to bypass the long slog through multiple experiments? What if they could use computers to envision every possible experiment around a particular subject — say, various drug treatments for a patient with triple-negative breast cancer — and then have those same computers actually perform the experiments on a cellular level, before applying the “winning” combination to the patient herself?

Microsoft researchers, using technology called “machine learning,” are trying to make those “what ifs” reality. By applying computers’ speed to data being built around personalized medicine — treatment based on a person’s own genetics — researchers hope to dramatically reduce the amount of time it takes to find the most effective treatment for any type of cancer in any individual.

The Literome Project

Cancer researchers are working all over the world on many of the same problems, but mostly in isolation. There’s a certain amount of professional jealousy involved; the race to find a cancer cure is quite competitive, after all. But more than that, there simply hasn’t been the infrastructure in place to allow scientists to collaborate easily on a worldwide basis.

Until now. Microsoft’s Literome project focuses on genomic information, including gene mapping. Part of Project Hanover, Literome’s technology scans PubMed articles and organizes their data into structured databases, searchable and available to scientists, researchers, doctors, and patients everywhere. This provides a collaborative international workplace unprecedented in the history of medical research.

More effective screening and diagnosis via computer

According to the National Cancer Institute, screening mammograms are only about 80 percent effective in identifying breast cancer. What if mammograms could become 100 percent accurate, spotting each and every “questionable” cluster of cells in a breast, and determining if they’re normal or not?

Right now diagnostic mammograms, used to track an identified tumor’s progress, provide a general picture at best, forcing doctors to use more expensive (yet still imperfect) MRIs to determine if a patient’s treatment is working. What if those diagnostic scans were fed into a program that tracked every change in a tumor, from size and shape to speed at which it’s evolving?

Scanning technology is constantly improving. Today’s scans are much more complex and detailed than ever before, to the point now where no radiologist can see and recognize every single potential aberration.

Enter technology. Researchers at Microsoft are working to build computers that can interpret scans more quickly and thoroughly than humans. Radiologists, instead of using their precious time to pore over thousands of images, will instead use their knowledge and experience to recommend treatment based on information provided by computers, rather than their eyes.

For more on Microsoft’s cancer-curing initiative, see How Microsoft computer scientists and researchers are working to ‘solve‘ cancer.

See More Helpful Articles:

A Guide to Breast Cancer Symptoms

Just Diagnosed? We Can Help

A Guide to Breast Cancer Treatment

A Guide to Survivorship: Life After Treatment

Breast cancer survivor and award-winning authorPJ Hamel, a long-time contributor to the HealthCentral community, counsels women with breast cancer through the volunteer program at her local hospital. She founded and manages a large and active online survivor support network.