”I was raised in post-independence Algeria. Both my parents were physicians and were extremely involved in academic culture in the country, including building one of the first Algerian universities. I was very struck by their devotion. I don’t know if I always wanted to be a physician, but I definitely wanted to find a way to contribute. Medicine felt like a meaningful way to do this. [...]
”My training as an oncologist underpins how I now lead our research program, where we are identifying new immune targets of cancer. The big question we are trying to answer is: how can we activate the immune system so it can recognize cancer cells and eliminate them? We’ve been working on a group of cells that are known to ‘educate’ the immune system, and we’re trying to use our knowledge of these cells to develop novel cancer treatments.
“So that’s my lab. But I also direct an institute where there are 42 laboratories. [...] All of us in the institute study how we can harness knowledge of the immune system to treat major human diseases.
“Technology can be a major accelerator for this type of research, and artificial intelligence is already transforming our approach. In radiology, for example, it’s empowering practitioners to make faster and better diagnoses. You can design an algorithm to analyze images much faster—and in much greater numbers—than a human can.
“But we want to go beyond that. We want to use AI to identify biomarkers of different subsets of disease by mining massive datasets associated with a disease. All major human diseases encompass a group of subsets of that disease. It’s only by understanding the heterogeneity of each disease that we’ll be able to identify novel treatment targets tailored to different groups of patients. If we can tailor treatments to the molecular causes of a disease, then we maximize the chances of therapeutic success. This is what we call precision medicine.
“Although the accelerating potential of technology such as AI is clear, we must also be careful and rigorous when it comes to applying it. This is true of any new field of technology, where we need to make sure that unnecessary mistakes are not made. It means progressing carefully and making sure that the wider medical community—and general public— really understand the work underway.
As told to Henry Rees-Sheridan.
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