Cancer is a terrible disease, and creating cures for the different types is one of the greatest challenges humanity is facing. But humanity won’t go at it alone anymore, as according to Microsoft computers are going to play a crucial role in this battle.
The software giant has started four new projects to revolutionize how cancer is treated. Two projects aim to help the medical community by providing individualized treatment based on the large database of potential cures, and by using artificial intelligence to monitor changes in a patient's tumor.
“We are trying to change the way research is done on a daily basis in biology,” Jasmin Fisher, a biologist who works in Microsoft’s Cambridge, UK laboratory, said in a statement.
“We’ve reached the point where we are drowning in information. We can measure so much, and because we can, we do. How do you take that information and turn that into knowledge? That’s a different story. There’s a huge leap here between information and data, and knowledge and understanding.”
This is where artificial intelligence comes in. By using a technique called machine learning, computers can act and make decisions without having to be explicitly programmed to do so. These machines can go through the research, data, and images and do the legwork for the researchers, potentially making the entire process quicker.
If this is not enough, Microsoft is also planning two significantly more ambitious projects. One is to create powerful algorithms to understand exactly how cancers develop, and then work out how to fight them. But the truly futuristic one is about reprogramming cells to fight diseases including cancer.
Andre Phillips, the head of the Bio Computation group, cautioned that this project has just started and that there’s a long road ahead. Understanding the biological system is already hard enough; reprogramming it won’t be like writing an app.
“We built the computer. We know how it works. We didn’t build the cell, and many of its complex internal workings remain a mystery to us. So we need to understand how the cell computes in order to program it,” Phillips said in the statement. “We need to develop the methods and software for analyzing and programming cells.”
Every year, about 13 percent of all deaths worldwide are due to one of the over 100 types of cancers that exist in humans. These new projects could potentially deliver the tools to reduce the impact that cancer has on so many.