Harnessing the power of AI in research

New technologies such as artificial intelligence and digital health applications, and how they impact research, were key topics at this year’s Clinical Trials Ontario (CTO) conference. Several delegates expressed how much they learned from the technical sessions. The event also featured the first-ever innovation showcase to promote new digital offerings in the clinical trials ecosystem.

“CTO’s annual conference always provides content that is inspiring and practical and this year’s speakers gave thoughtful insights into the impacts of digital technology on clinical research,” said Cheryl Litchfield, Manager of Grants and Contracts at the Lawson Health Research Institute at London Health Sciences Centre and St. Joseph’s Health Care in London. 

Another attendee, Rommel Mangaser, Senior Clinical Research Manager at Bayshore Health Care, Mississauga, was similarly enthused. “The CTO conference is a great networking opportunity, bringing together great minds and like minds to talk about clinical trials and artificial intelligence. It is a great platform to bring up challenges and issues universal to all clinical trials in Ontario.”

Leading Canadian Forum

The CTO Conference is a leading Canadian forum to drive innovation in clinical trials. This year’s conference on March 27 and 28 drew more than 480 attendees, including leaders from the pharmaceutical and medical device industries, academic and healthcare leaders, as well as representatives from patient groups, health charities, research ethics boards and institutions, and government. CTO’s mandate is to strengthen Ontario’s competitive advantages in conducting high-quality clinical trials, while ensuring the highest ethical standards are met.

Speaker Michael Jackson, who is leader in Public Health and U.S. Elections at Amazon Web Services in Washington, D.C., provided the audience with a good example of how artificial intelligence (AI) can improve clinical trials. Citing the statistic that 75% of clinical trials fail to meet enrollment targets, he suggested that this can be dramatically improved computers that comb through unstructured medical notes looking for key words that will help identify potential patients for clinical trials. Jackson estimated that while this task conducted manually by a person would take 2.5 hours per patient record, it could be done by a machine in 24 seconds per record.

He suggests that a good motto when looking for ways to streamline systems, and one that Amazon uses, is “For the vision, be stubborn. For the details, be flexible.” 

Faster patient enrollment

An AI company that drew a lot of attention at the innovation showcase was Deep 6 AI. Vice-President Eric Gildenhuys was also a speaker and co-panelist with Jackson at the event. Deep 6, which is presently working with nine hospital sites including Cedars Sinai Medical Center in the U.S., builds software tools that understand large amounts of unstructured data at a high speed. “Deep 6 finds patients for clinical trials in seconds,” he told the audience. He stressed that while clinical trials still need humans to validate, screen and recruit patients, Deep 6 AI can reduce labour costs of enrollment by 70%.

Keynote speaker Jesse Hirsh, a futurist and digital strategist who lives with a chronic disease, challenged delegates to debunk the myths of AI – that it will become a sentient creature, that it is impartial, and that it is going to create massive unemployment. AI cannot replace humans; it can only go as far as it is programmed to go, he said.

Besides demystifying AI, Hirsh believes the clinical trials community has another important role in today’s society, to foster health and science literacy. This is especially important, he said, in a time of “algorithmic authority” when decisions are made by machines and “cognitive authority” when anyone at all can declare themselves an expert on the Internet.

Regulations needed

M’an H. Zawati, Executive Director of the Centre of Genomics and Policy, department of human genetics at McGill University, talked about the use of novel technologies in clinical and research settings. His research focuses on the legal, ethical and policy dimensions of cutting-edge activities such as biobanking, data sharing, and the use of digital apps in health.  

“Data is the new oil,” he told the audience, warning that some of the companies behind the 325,000 health-related applications available are collecting health information in a haphazard and largely unregulated way. He used the example of apps that track how many steps you take in a day or whether a mole on your skin may become melanoma. “Where will this data be stored? Who has access? Is there a government framework? Is there an access policy that can be reviewed? What if you want to sell your phone?” he asked. “There is not a lot of legislation about this.”

Peter Jones, Industry Lead for Canadian Healthcare at Microsoft, noted there is a data tsunami coming, as more than 30 million genomes will have been sequenced in the next couple of years, to create 700 plus petabytes of data. Microsoft is partnering with large health care organizations such as BC Cancer and University Health Network to build secure ways to share data on the cloud.

Hosting the annual conference is just one of the ways that CTO improves the climate for clinical trials in Ontario and attracts business to the province.

Featured image is a technology panel at this year’s CTO conference. In the foreground is Michael Jackson, leader in Public Health and U.S. Elections at Amazon Web Services in Washington, D.C.


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