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OKRA founder calls for open data to drive up cancer care


By Paul Brackley


More open-data platforms, combined with artificial intelligence technology, are required to drive forward advances in cancer care, according to OKRA Technologies founder Loubna Bourfa.

Loubna Bouarfa, of OKRA Technologies, at the EFPIA Oncology Data Summit 2019 (12967960)
Loubna Bouarfa, of OKRA Technologies, at the EFPIA Oncology Data Summit 2019 (12967960)

She believes there are too many data silos in healthcare - and urged companies to engage in non-exclusive collaborations.

OKRA, based at St John’s Innovation Centre in Cambridge, provides AI-powered analytics for healthcare professionals and pharmaceutical companies

A member of the European Union’s High-Level Expert Group on AI, Loubna said: “If data is the new oil in other industries, data can literally mean life or death in healthcare.

“If we look back at recent significant, scientific breakthroughs in cancer treatment, they are all driven by data.

“AI and health data are underpinning the progress being made in providing faster and accurate patient diagnosis, boosting survival rates and driving improvements in patient quality of life during treatment.”

But she warned: “Unfortunately, where we need data the most, we are left with silos of information distributed between academic registries, clinical registries, facilitated networks and siloed electronic records. Not only do data silos limit accessibility, they also create a variation in the data quality and standards.

“The integration of this data requires substantial investment that can lead to the creation of data monopolies in the European market. Larger corporates claiming to drive innovation in anti-cancer treatment and invest hugely in integrating data that sits in the public domain, are actually creating barriers by limiting health data access to small enterprises that are more innovative, cost-effective and can potentially deliver value faster.

“In order to unleash the potential of health data for fighting the big killer in healthcare, we need more open-data platforms, actionable AI technology, and non-exclusive collaboration initiatives leveraging anonymised and de-identified data for improving cancer care.”

Loubna Bouarfa, of OKRA Technologies, at the EFPIA Oncology Data Summit 2019 (12967955)
Loubna Bouarfa, of OKRA Technologies, at the EFPIA Oncology Data Summit 2019 (12967955)

Loubna’s comments came after she joined a panel of experts at The European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EFPIA) Oncology Data Summit on June 18.

Today (Wednesday), she will be a keynote speaker at an event marking the first anniversary of the creation of the European AI Alliance platform.

Addressing misconceptions about AI, she said we need to stop thinking rule-based expert systems were good enough to drive diagnosis and asking how can we leverage data to drive better outcomes.

She said the too often AI was applied to one-off studies and publications, when it should be designed to “impact real-world clinical practice and allow more confidence in day-to-day medical decisions”.

And she said it was wrong to think AI would replace physicians if deployed at the point of care.

“The truth is that AI will support physicians with mundane tasks and decision-making,” she said.

There are already some examples of AI assisting in cancer care. But unlocking further advances will require a change of thinking.

“We have already seen other industries, such as aviation and IOT, open their data platforms so they can effectively learn across the industry and share their experiences so mistakes are not repeated. But surprisingly, in healthcare, data is withheld and protected in closed platforms thus not enabling anyone to learn from and create value that matters to the patients.

“In the EU specifically, we should focus on the value of healthcare data and the benefits of AI from the patient’s perspective, and a move towards outcome-based models.

“Our policies and regulations need to avoid data monopolies and boost innovation and encourage partnerships, to bring us closer to providing the best value to patients,” she said.

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