How AI Is Just What the Doctor Ordered for Healthtech
Since the earth-shaking arrival of platforms like ChatGPT and Midjourney last year, much of the media attention on AI has focused on its uncanny ability to mimic human creativity when it comes to music, writing and the visual arts. But, as experts as disparate as Stability AI founder Emad Mostaque and the government’s former chief scientific advisor Sir Patrick Vallance have noted, the arrival of AI represents a new Industrial Revolution which is changing the game in every conceivable space. Not least, medicine and healthtech.
AI’s diagnostic capabilities alone are set to fundamentally transform how clinicians operate across the world. Quick off the mark in recognising its potential, the UK government has been awarding millions in research funding through the AI in Health and Care Awards since 2019.
The latest round of awards, announced earlier this year, has seen nearly £16 million being given to a number of companies, hospitals and research consortiums.with the aim of allowing “tens of thousands of patients across the country” to “benefit from quicker, earlier diagnoses and more effective treatments for a range of conditions.”
Let’s take a look at some of the recent beneficiaries of this scheme, and other pioneering AI-driven healthtech startups that have been attracting the attention of investors.
UK startup Ibex has been awarded a £1.5 million slice of this year’s AI in Health and Care funding, in recognition of its pioneering work in deploying AI to diagnose breast, prostate and gastric cancers. Known as Galen, its platform can help pathologists analyse tissue samples in a faster, more efficient, more accurate manner.
Human subjectivity, and varying levels of knowledge and experience, can sometimes lead to delayed or inaccurate diagnoses when assessing and grading biopsies. The Galen platform sidesteps this problem by cross-referencing samples with over 10 million pathology slides and medical reports gathered from labs across the globe. Thanks to this vast resource, and forensic deep learning technology, the platform can pinpoint not only malignancies but numerous other clinically relevant diagnostic features.
Previous government backing allowed Ibex to roll out its prostate cancer diagnostic technology across a string of UK hospitals. This latest funding will enable trials of its breast cancer platform, with researchers set to assess its effectiveness on over 10,000 patients.
Another recipient of this year’s AI in Health and Care funding is Mendelian, a UK healthtech company which is tackling the thorny issue of rare, hard to diagnose diseases. As the company points out, “rare diseases are not rare” – while individual diseases may each affect a relatively small number of people, the cumulative impact of such poorly understood conditions as Behcet's disease and Ehler-Danlos syndrome damages the lives of over 350 million patients around the globe.
And, since the individual conditions may be unfamiliar to many clinicians, the diagnostic pathway can be frustratingly slow, with misdiagnoses being common. Mendelian’s specialised platform, MendelScan, matches symptoms from patient records with a vast archive of diagnostic criteria for over 100 obscure conditions, compiled from a wealth of digital health records. It then provides reports to clinicians, pointing them towards possible diagnoses.
The firm has now been given £1.4 million to accelerate what Mendelian CEO Dr Peter Fish describes as their “journey towards shifting the way healthcare systems improve care for rare disease patients.”
Last year, leading US healthcare provider Northwell Health teamed up with startup studio Aegis Ventures to form Ascertain, a partnership dedicated to launching and scaling AI healthtech companies. A little over a week ago, it brought its first such company to market: retinal imaging specialist, Optain.
Backed by a $12 million seed round, the company allows clinicians to take retinal images using a special Optain camera. The images are then run through the company’s AI algorithm, which rapidly creates a risk assessment report for numerous conditions – from diabetic retinopathy to macular degeneration to cardiovascular issues.
By offering such swift analysis, the technology can allow patients to catch and tackle issues in their earliest stages, closing – in the words of Optain CEO Jeff Dunkel – “critical health equity gaps, particularly in underserved communities where diagnostic and screening tools aren’t available.”
One of the biggest beneficiaries of investor interest in AI healthtech is Cleerly, a New York-based company which is tackling the global scourge of heart disease. It’s doing so through a platform that uses machine learning to help clinicians accurately assess CT angiography imaging, and so diagnose plaque build-up in arteries more rapidly.
Its AI algorithms actually create 3D models of patients’ vasculature and draw on information from 10 million images gathered from over 40,000 patient records. A study by the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that the Cleerly platform is “as good or better than invasive angiography”, which is high praise indeed.
It’s perhaps unsurprising that backers have reached deep into their pockets to help Cleerly meet its goals, with the startup enjoying a hefty $223 million funding round last summer.
AI isn’t just disrupting how we diagnose conditions. It’s also being leveraged to help improve the training of healthcare workers, with one promising UK player in this subsector being Re:course AI. Earlier this year, the Manchester-based startup raised £3.5 million in seed funding, which it is ploughing into expanding its engineering team and furthering its global reach.
Described by co-founder Dr Maksim Belousov as a “flight simulator for healthcare”, the startup provides virtual, AI-based training by way of photorealistic digital avatars which represent patients from numerous demographics. Trainee clinicians can interact with the avatars to develop their diagnostic skills and their bedside/webside manner.
The voice-based conversational technology can be used to simulate countless patient-clinician scenarios, making it easier and cheaper to put trainees through their paces and provide instant feedback on how they do. In the words of co-founder Dr Scott Martin, such AI “will augment, not replace, the healthcare workforce of the future.”