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UK study to use AI to 'diagnose diseases earlier'

A pioneering UK study will look to use artificial intelligence (AI) to detect illnesses earlier and enable pre-emptive treatment.07 Dec 2018

The 'accelerating detection of disease' project, described by the UK government as a "world-first", was unveiled as part of a new life sciences 'sector deal' between the government and organisations from the life sciences industry.

"Data and AI used to augment the skills and experience of clinicians has the potential to empower the health ecosystem to achieve more and better results for patients," said life sciences expert Helen Cline of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com. "However, more still needs to be done to demonstrate to patients the value of data sharing for research; building trust will be essential."

"More also needs to be done to create an environment that facilitates data sharing, including clear guidance from regulators," she said.

The research will involve a partnership between the NHS, life sciences companies and charities, including Cancer Research UK, the British Heart Foundation and Alzheimer’s Research UK and will be backed by £79 million of government funds.

As part of the study, the health of five million people will be monitored for changes over time with a view to the researchers better understanding "how and why diseases develop", the government said. The work will be led by Sir John Bell who previously helped the government develop a life sciences strategy and ultimately the first life sciences sector deal announced in December 2017.

"This mammoth undertaking will be the biggest study of its kind, using artificial intelligence and other new technologies to diagnose diseases earlier," Sir John said. "We all know someone who we love who has suffered the effects of a devastating disease. If we can detect illnesses like cancer, Alzheimer’s and heart disease before symptoms present, we can open doors to transform treatment and save lives."

"It is this kind of revolutionary work which will help people get the right treatment before they get ill, and it is my ambition that this will give more of us, more years of healthy life," he said.

The government said the study "will attract investment from global life science companies seeking to develop new diagnostic tools and treatments" and take a number of years.

The new sector deal also contained details of further exploratory work on the use of AI in health care.

The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has obtained funding to work with NHS Digital "on developing a pilot in order to test and validate algorithms and other AI used in medical devices" as part of a project which will see the regulator work with "innovators" from industry.

The MHRA will also look into the feasibility of using AI to "identify safety signals in large datasets of health records" to enable "real-time identification of issues arising with medicines", it said.

The government also confirmed the expansion of its 100,000 Genomes project after the original target of sequencing 100,000 whole genomes from NHS patients was met. The new target is for at least one million whole genomes to be sequenced within five years – 500,000 of those will be sequenced through the NHS and 500,000 through the UK Biobank project.

Matt Hancock, the health secretary in England, described the sequencing of the 100,000th genome as a "major milestone in the route to the healthcare of the future".

"Understanding the human code on such a scale is part of our mission to provide truly personalised care to help patients live longer, healthier and happier lives," Hancock said. "I’m incredibly excited about the potential of this type of technology to unlock the next generation of treatments, diagnose diseases earlier, save lives and enable patients to take greater control of their own health."

Sir John Chisholm, chair of Genomics England, the body that has led on the project since 2012, said: "At launch the 100,000 Genomes project was a bold ambition to corral the UK’s renowned skills in genomic science and combine them with the strengths of a truly national health service in order to propel the UK into a global leadership position in population genomics. With this announcement, that ambition has been achieved. The results of this will be felt for many generations to come as the benefits of genomic medicine in the UK unfold."

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) also announced that a new five year agreement on a voluntary scheme for branded medicines, pricing and access had been agreed with the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI). The agreement will replace the Pharmaceutical Price Regulation Scheme (PPRS), which is due to expire, and will take effect on 1 January 2019.

The DHSC said the deal is expected to save the NHS across the UK approximately £930 million on its medicines bill over the term of the agreement.

"The scheme is designed to keep growth in the branded medicine bill predictable and affordable by placing a 2% cap on the growth in sales of branded medicines to the NHS," the DHSC said. "Pharmaceutical companies will repay the NHS for spending above the 2% cap."

"Other measures to keep the cost of medicines affordable to the NHS include simplifying price controls, and faster and more flexible commercial discussions between the NHS and pharmaceutical companies," it said.

Pharmaceutical companies that do not sign-up to the new voluntary scheme will be subject to the statutory scheme for controlling the cost of drugs to the NHS in England, unless an exemption applies. The DHSC consulted on reforms to the statutory scheme in August.