When Regina Barzilay was diagnosed with breast cancer, she was shocked at how haphazard the process was – and vowed to use her expertise to change things
WHEN you are diagnosed with cancer, you are faced with a lot of uncertainty and forced to make dramatic decisions often based on very little data. That’s what Regina Barzilay found when she was told she had breast cancer in 2014. But data is her bread and butter – she works on machine learning, teaching computers to read language or predict outcomes based on a few clues. And with cancer, that’s all we have right now: the clinical data on which doctors base a patient’s prognosis is drawn from just a sliver of the population. Barzilay wants to change that.
A professor who teaches one of the most popular classes at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – an introduction to machine learning – and a recent recipient of a MacArthur “genius” fellowship, Barzilay is part of a revolution brewing in cancer detection. The team she leads at MIT is using artificial intelligence to recognise patterns in medical images and doctors’ electronic notes in an attempt to catch cancer earlier and avoid overusing invasive treatments.
How did you end up applying your work with machine learning to oncology?
There is a technical answer and a pragmatic one. Virtually every aspect of life today is regulated by machine learning, whether you know it or not. The only area that isn’t is healthcare, which involves a lot of prediction tasks. When your doctor tries to find you a treatment, they look at different clues together and make a prediction. With personalisation, which we’re all trying to achieve …