Artificial intelligence helping to improve prostate cancer care

Mr Daniel Oguna, a PET CT Technologist preparing a patient for a scan procedure at Aga Khan University Hospital, Nairobi. [File, Standard]

September is Prostate Cancer Awareness Month, a time when we shine a spotlight on our collective efforts to combat prostate cancer and the indispensable role that artificial intelligence (AI) plays in this battle. Prostate cancer is a widespread and potentially lethal disease that afflicts millions of men worldwide. According to the World Cancer Research Fund, it ranks as the second most common cancer in men, with approximately 1.4 million new cases diagnosed each year.

Picture the male body as a complex machine with each part serving a unique function. Among these parts, the prostate gland, nestled beneath the bladder, plays a crucial role in producing a special fluid that aids sperm movement. However, sometimes, things take an unfavourable turn, and the cells in the prostate start growing abnormally. This is what we refer to as prostate cancer-an occurrence where these cells form either a lump or a tumour.

Prostate cancer isn't an isolated event that only affects a select few. In 2020, nearly 192,000 men in the US received the devastating news of a prostate cancer diagnosis, and sadly, about 33,000 of them lost their battle against the disease. On a global scale, prostate cancer stands as a significant contributor to cancer-related fatalities.

This cancer, however, remains a puzzle with missing pieces when it comes to its causes. While we are not entirely sure why it occurs, factors like advanced age, with those above 65 at higher risk, and a family history of the disease, where a genetic link may be involved, appear to heighten the likelihood of its occurrence.

The complexity of prostate cancer has made it a formidable challenge for healthcare professionals, even though early detection and treatment hold the promise of better survival rates. Fortunately, recent years have witnessed the emergence of AI, playing a pivotal role in transforming the diagnosis, treatment, and research of prostate cancer.

AI has brought about a significant enhancement in the accuracy of prostate cancer detection, primarily through advanced imaging techniques. Machine learning algorithms are now capable of scrutinising medical images such as MRI scans and ultrasound images. These algorithms spot even the most subtle abnormalities within the prostate gland that might elude human radiologists, leading to swifter and more precise diagnoses.

Prostate cancer exhibits considerable heterogeneity, meaning that it varies significantly from one patient to another. AI is revolutionising healthcare by enabling professionals to craft treatment plans tailored to each patient's unique needs through personalised risk assessment. By analysing comprehensive patient data, including genetic information, medical history, and imaging results, AI algorithms forecast the likelihood of disease progression and propose personalised treatment options.

Furthermore, AI-driven predictive models assist physicians in determining whether active surveillance, a strategy involving close monitoring without immediate treatment, is suitable for patients with low-risk prostate cancer.

Ms Alwala is Vice President, Global Service Delivery at Sama