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YOUR HEALTH: How Artificial Intelligence could save cancer patients

Doctors may turn to artificial intelligence to better manage the drugs you take.

SEATTLE, Washington – For the last 40 years, doctors have treated patients with acute myeloid leukemia, or AML, with a few chemotherapy drugs.

Only one in four patients survive for five years.

Now, researchers at the University of Washington have brought computers and artificial intelligence into the mix.

It's helping Candice Ferro who was diagnosed with AML about a year ago.   She had chemo, radiation, and a bone marrow transplant.

"I feel so much better, like healthier."

Her doctor chose Candice's drugs because of a gene mutation she has.  She may soon get to use even more precise information.

AML will progress quickly if not treated and would probably be fatal in a few months.  It starts in the bone marrow and often quickly moves into the blood.

University of Washington Computer Science and Engineering professor Su-in Lee and her team of researchers are developing a cancer algorithm called "Merge".

"'Merge' is an AI algorithm that can automatically learn from large amounts of data and complex biological knowledge how to choose the best drug for an individual cancer patient," she said.

"Merge" gets its data from Lee's study of 42 AML patients and from many large-scale studies funded by the NIH.   Candice's doctor then tests leukemia cells against 150 drugs and drug combinations.

"After 72 hours, we would check if the cells survived those drugs or didn't survive those drugs, and then we would find out which drugs might work best for that patient," said Dr. Pamela Becker, a medical professor at the University of Washington.

Lee says "Merge" is a successful algorithm, partly because there's so much patient information to use.

"Data are becoming more and more available," said Professor Lee.

Candice has been in three clinical trials that could bring precision medicine for AML even more quickly.

Now, she feels free to make plans with her son.

"I feel like I got a lot of time to make up for!"

ACUTE MYELOID LEUKEMIA:   Leukemias are cancers that start in cells that would normally develop into different types of blood cells.   Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) can progress quickly if not treated, and would probably be fatal in a few months.   AML starts in the bone marrow, but in most cases it quickly moves into the blood.   It can sometimes spread to other parts of the body including the lymph nodes, liver, spleen, central nervous system (brain and spinal cord), and testicles.   The main treatment for AML is chemotherapy, sometimes along with a targeted therapy drug.   This might be followed by a stem cell transplant.   Surgery and radiation therapy may also be used in special circumstances.   Treatment for AML can continue for months or years.   Even after treatment ends, a patient will need frequent follow-up exams.   Follow-up is needed to check for cancer recurrence, as well as possible side effects of certain treatments.

Dr. Becker and Professor Lee's collaboration is only in the lab right now.   They say they are looking forward to eventually testing it on patients who are newly diagnosed.

If this story has impacted your life or prompted you or someone you know to seek or change treatments, please let us know by contacting Jim Mertens at jim.mertens@wqad.com or Marjorie Bekaert Thomas at mthomas@ivanhoe.com.