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AI’s Potential for Breast Cancer Research

By BCRF | January 16, 2024

In part one in our new “StAI tuned” series, BCRF covers the basics of AI and its role in transforming breast cancer research

Artificial intelligence (AI) is a remarkable technology that is undoubtedly one of the most exciting topics in science and medicine around the world today—and for good reason. With its ability to process vast amounts of data, identify patterns, and make predictions, AI can open doors to earlier and improved cancer detection, better personalize treatment plans, speed drug discovery and, ultimately, improve outcomes for breast cancer patients. 

This is the first in a series of blogs where we will explore the advantages AI offers across the breast cancer continuum and discuss how BCRF is supporting research to harness the potential of AI to benefit patients. Read part two on breast cancer screening and diagnosis and part three on precision medicine and predictive analytics.

What is AI?

AI is the intelligence of computers derived from the input of researchers. Part of the larger realm of computer science, AI emerged as a field of its own in the 1950s. As technology evolved through the decades, scientists were able to develop more and more sophisticated algorithms, which are specific instructions that train computers to problem-solve, process language, and even reason. Thus far, scientists have trained computers to perform multiple concurrent tasks that have transformed our lives.   

AI is already a familiar tool to many. It’s behind the friendly voice of Siri, Apple’s digital assistant, and Alexa, Amazon’s cloud-based voice system platform that interfaces with a smart speaker. It also powers the trusty GPS that we rely on to guide our journeys. These are examples of AI at work, where machines have been designed to think, learn, and make decisions much like humans do—all to make our lives easier. 

ChatGPT and GPT-4, two new kids on the block, are the supercomputers of AI. They are based on a technology called Generative Pre-trained Transformer (GPT) and are more sophisticated AIs that have been trained utilizing vast amounts of available literature, content, and data to enhance their power and utility. This technology was made available to the public as of late 2022, allowing all of us to be AI engineers and give specific “prompts” or instructions for AI to perform a task.

Recent advances have tapped AI’s potential and extend far beyond convenience. It now holds the power to transform multiple industries, including the ever-evolving landscape of healthcare. In this realm, AI is emerging as a potentially useful ally, offering new avenues for better patient care and improved outcomes.

AI in healthcare

We are already seeing evidence of AI’s accuracy and efficiency in studies that have put its skills to the test. In February 2023, the U.S. Department of Medical Education conducted an experiment with ChatGPT to see how AI performs on the U.S. Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE), a set of three standardized tests of expert-level knowledge required to become a doctor in the U.S. Impressively, ChatGPT attained at or near the passing threshold for the USMLE. 

Furthermore, in October 2023, a Google protein-folding AI program called AlphaFold won a Lasker Award—the prestigious U.S. version of the Nobel prize—becoming the first application of AI to win such recognition. Typically, deciphering a protein’s structure takes years of work, but AlphaFold can generate a protein structure in less than 10 minutes. Imagine this applied to drug discovery! We are just at the tip of the iceberg with AI, and there is much more to come.  

Think of AI’s role in healthcare as a trusted guide for doctors, nurses, and researchers, akin to having an extra set of highly trained eyes that can quickly analyze vast amounts of medical data and identify crucial patterns that may be too subtle for the human eye to detect. For instance, AI can enhance the accuracy of medical imaging by helping radiologists detect anomalies in mammograms, CT scans, and X-rays with unparalleled precision. Perhaps it will aid in the development of personalized treatment plans, ensuring that therapies are tailored to the unique needs of each patient. Moreover, AI’s predictive prowess may help foresee potential health issues, allowing early interventions and preventive measures. 

AI in breast cancer research

AI is a potentially transformative force in breast cancer research. In mammography, AI algorithms may help act as vigilant sentinels, meticulously analyzing mammograms. When coupled with assessment by a trained radiologist, it may identify even the most subtle signs of breast cancer, enabling earlier and more accurate detection. Meanwhile, in the domain of digital pathology, AI may lend its discerning eye to scrutinizing tissue samples with unparalleled precision, helping pathologists detect abnormalities swiftly and reliably. 

This, specificity, is crucial to advance precision medicine and ensure that breast cancer patients receive tailored treatments. AI may help guide clinical decision-making by leveraging an individual’s genetic makeup to determine the best treatment strategy for them. In addition, AI-driven drug discovery may accelerate the hunt for novel treatments, potentially uncovering groundbreaking therapies that can save lives. These applications are not merely technological advancements—they are possible lifelines in our work to end breast cancer, promising not only early detection but also personalized treatment plans, more accurate diagnoses, and ultimately, improved patient outcomes.

There is much speculation about the impact of AI. Will it be positive or negative? As Bill Gates has said: “The development of AI is as fundamental as the creation of the personal computer. AI will change the way people work, learn, and communicate—and transform healthcare.”

But AI cannot do it alone. A collaborative partnership between AI and human intellect will help transform healthcare with the next generation of tools, such as AI-assisted digital pathology, mammography, drug development, and precision medicine. The alliance between AI and humans has the potential to drive monumental progress against cancer.

In our upcoming series of blogs, we will showcase examples of how AI is impacting breast cancer research and highlight how BCRF funding supports specific AI projects. StAI tuned!