At his son's college graduation in 2017, Dan Chessin felt "terribly uncomfortable" sitting in the stadium. The bouts of pain persisted, and after months of monitoring, a urologist took biopsies of suspicious areas in his prostate.
This innovation may enhance diagnostic precision and promptness, but it also brings ethical concerns to the forefront.
"In my case, the biopsies came out cancerous," says Chessin, 60, who underwent robotic surgery for intermediate-grade prostate cancer at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center.
Although he needed a biopsy, as most patients today do, advances in radiologic technology may make such invasive measures unnecessary in the future. Researchers are developing better imaging techniques and algorithms—a form of computer science called artificial intelligence, in which machines learn and execute tasks that typically require human brain power.
This innovation may enhance diagnostic precision and promptness. But it also brings ethical concerns to the forefront of the conversation, highlighting the potential for invasion of privacy, unequal patient access, and less physician involvement in patient care.
A National Academy of Medicine Special Publication, released in December, emphasizes that setting industry-wide standards for use in patient care is essential to AI's responsible and transparent implementation as the industry grapples with voluminous quantities of data. The technology should be viewed as a tool to supplement decision-making by highly trained professionals, not to replace it.
MRI--a test that uses powerful magnets, radio waves, and a computer to take detailed images inside the body--has become highly accurate in detecting aggressive prostate cancer, but its reliability is more limited in identifying low and intermediate grades of malignancy. That's why Chessin opted to have his prostate removed rather than take the chance of missing anything more suspicious that could develop.
His urologist, Lee Ponsky, says AI's most significant impact is yet to come. He hopes University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center's collaboration with research scientists at its academic affiliate, Case Western Reserve University, will lead to the invention of a virtual biopsy.
A National Cancer Institute five-year grant is funding the project, launched in 2017, to develop a combined MRI and computerized tool to support more accurate detection and grading of prostate cancer. Such a tool would be "the closest to a crystal ball that we can get," says Ponsky, professor and chairman of the Urology Institute.
In situations where AI has guided diagnostics, radiologists' interpretations of breast, lung, and prostate lesions have improved as much as 25 percent, says Anant Madabhushi, a biomedical engineer and director of the Center for Computational Imaging and Personalized Diagnostics at Case Western Reserve, who is collaborating with Ponsky. "AI is very nascent," Madabhushi says, estimating that fewer than 10 percent of niche academic medical centers have used it. "We are still optimizing and validating the AI and virtual biopsy technology."
In October, several North American and European professional organizations of radiologists, imaging informaticists, and medical physicists released a joint statement on the ethics of AI. "Ultimate responsibility and accountability for AI remains with its human designers and operators for the foreseeable future," reads the statement, published in the Journal of the American College of Radiology. "The radiology community should start now to develop codes of ethics and practice for AI that promote any use that helps patients and the common good and should block use of radiology data and algorithms for financial gain without those two attributes."
Overreliance on new technology also poses concern when humans "outsource the process to a machine."
The statement's leader author, radiologist J. Raymond Geis, says "there's no question" that machines equipped with artificial intelligence "can extract more information than two human eyes" by spotting very subtle patterns in pixels. Yet, such nuances are "only part of the bigger picture of taking care of a patient," says Geis, a senior scientist with the American College of Radiology's Data Science Institute. "We have to be able to combine that with knowledge of what those pixels mean."
Setting ethical standards is high on all physicians' radar because the intricacies of each patient's medical record are factored into the computer's algorithm, which, in turn, may be used to help interpret other patients' scans, says radiologist Frank Rybicki, vice chair of operations and quality at the University of Cincinnati's department of radiology. Although obtaining patients' informed consent in writing is currently necessary, ethical dilemmas arise if and when patients have a change of heart about the use of their private health information. It is likely that removing individual data may be possible for some algorithms but not others, Rybicki says.
The information is de-identified to protect patient privacy. Using it to advance research is akin to analyzing human tissue removed in surgical procedures with the goal of discovering new medicines to fight disease, says Maryellen Giger, a University of Chicago medical physicist who studies computer-aided diagnosis in cancers of the breast, lung, and prostate, as well as bone diseases. Physicians who become adept at using AI to augment their interpretation of imaging will be ahead of the curve, she says.
As with other new discoveries, patient access and equality come into play. While AI appears to "have potential to improve over human performance in certain contexts," an algorithm's design may result in greater accuracy for certain groups of patients, says Lucia M. Rafanelli, a political theorist at The George Washington University. This "could have a disproportionately bad impact on one segment of the population."
Overreliance on new technology also poses concern when humans "outsource the process to a machine." Over time, they may cease developing and refining the skills they used before the invention became available, said Chloe Bakalar, a visiting research collaborator at Princeton University's Center for Information Technology Policy.
"AI is a paradigm shift with magic power and great potential."
Striking the right balance in the rollout of the technology is key. Rushing to integrate AI in clinical practice may cause harm, whereas holding back too long could undermine its ability to be helpful. Proper governance becomes paramount. "AI is a paradigm shift with magic power and great potential," says Ge Wang, a biomedical imaging professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. "It is only ethical to develop it proactively, validate it rigorously, regulate it systematically, and optimize it as time goes by in a healthy ecosystem."
"Making Sense of Science" is a monthly podcast that features interviews with leading medical and scientific experts about the latest developments and the big ethical and societal questions they raise. This episode is hosted by science and biotech journalist Emily Mullin, summer editor of the award-winning science outlet Leaps.org.
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Stacey Khoury felt more fatigued and out of breath than she was used to from just walking up the steps to her job in retail jewelry sales in Nashville, Tennessee. By the time she got home, she was more exhausted than usual, too.
"I just thought I was working too hard and needed more exercise," recalls the native Nashvillian about those days in December 2010. "All of the usual excuses you make when you're not feeling 100%."
As a professional gemologist, being hospitalized during peak holiday sales season wasn't particularly convenient. There was no way around it though when her primary care physician advised Khoury to see a blood disorder oncologist because of her disturbing blood count numbers. As part of a routine medical exam, a complete blood count screens for a variety of diseases and conditions that affect blood cells, such as anemia, infection, inflammation, bleeding disorders and cancer.
"If approved, it will allow more patients to potentially receive a transplant than would have gotten one before."
While she was in the hospital, a bone marrow biopsy revealed that Khoury had acute myeloid leukemia, or AML, a high-risk blood cancer. After Khoury completed an intense first round of chemotherapy, her oncologist recommended a bone marrow transplant. The potentially curative treatment for blood-cancer patients requires them to first receive a high dose of chemotherapy. Next, an infusion of stem cells from a healthy donor's bone marrow helps form new blood cells to fight off the cancer long-term.
Each year, approximately 8,000 patients in the U.S. with AML and other blood cancers receive a bone marrow transplant from a donor, according to the Center for International Blood and Marrow Transplant Research. But Khoury wasn't so lucky. She ended up being among the estimated 40% of patients eligible for bone marrow transplants who don't receive one, usually because there's no matched donor available.
Khoury's oncologist told her about another option. She could enter a clinical trial for an investigational cell therapy called omidubicel, which is being developed by Israeli biotech company Gamida Cell. The company's cell therapy, which is still experimental, could up a new avenue of treatment for cancer patients who can't get a bone marrow transplant.
Omidubicel consists of stem cells from cord blood that have been expanded using Gamida's technology to ensure there are enough cells for a therapeutic dose. The company's technology allows the immature cord blood cells to multiply quickly in the lab. Like a bone marrow transplant, the goal of the therapy is to make sure the donor cells make their way to the bone marrow and begin producing healthy new cells — a process called engraftment.
"If approved, it will allow more patients to potentially receive a transplant than would have gotten one before, so there's something very novel and exciting about that," says Ronit Simantov, Gamida Cell's chief medical officer.
Khoury and her husband Rick packed up their car and headed to the closest trial site, the Duke University School of Medicine, roughly 500 miles away. There they met with Mitchell Horowitz, a stem cell transplant specialist at Duke and principal investigator for Gamida's omidubicel study in the U.S.
He told Khoury she was a perfect candidate for the trial, and she enrolled immediately. "When you have one of two decisions, and it's either do this or you're probably not going to be around, it was a pretty easy decision to make, and I am truly thankful for that," she says.
Khoury's treatment started at the end of March 2011, and she was home by July 4 that year. She say the therapy "worked the way the doctors wanted it to work." Khoury's blood counts were rising quicker than the people who had bone marrow matches, and she was discharged from Duke earlier than other patients were.
By expanding the number of cord blood cells — which are typically too few to treat an adult — omidubicel allows doctors to use cord blood for patients who require a transplant but don't have a donor match for bone marrow.
Patients receiving omidubicel first get a blood test to determine their human leukocyte antigen, or HLA, type. This protein is found on most cells in the body and is an important regulator of the immune system. HLA typing is used to match patients to bone marrow and cord blood donors, but cord blood doesn't require as close of a match.
Like bone marrow transplants, one potential complication of omidubicel is graft-versus-host disease, when the donated bone marrow or stem cells register the recipient's body as foreign and attack the body. Depending on the severity of the response, according to the Mayo Clinic, treatment includes medication to suppress the immune system, such as steroids. In clinical trials, the occurrence of graft-versus-host disease with omidubicel was comparable with traditional bone marrow transplants.
"Transplant doctors are working on improving that," Simantov says. "A number of new therapies that specifically address graft-versus-host disease will be making some headway in the coming months and years."
Gamida released the results of the Phase 3 study in February and continues to follow Khoury and the other study patients for their long-term outcomes. The large randomized trial evaluated the safety and efficacy of omidubicel compared to standard umbilical cord blood transplants in patients with blood cancer who didn't have a suitable bone marrow donor. Around 120 patients aged 12 to 65 across the U.S., Europe and Asia were included in the trial. The study found that omidubicel resulted in faster recovery, fewer bacterial and viral infections and fewer days in the hospital.
The company plans to seek FDA approval this year. Simantov anticipates the therapy will receive FDA approval by 2022.
"Opening up cord blood transplants is very important, especially for people of diverse ethnic backgrounds," says oncologist Gary Schiller, principal investigator at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA for Gamida Cell's mid- and late-stage trials. "This expansion technology makes a big difference because it makes cord blood an available option for those who do not have another donor source."
As for Khoury, who proudly celebrated the anniversary of her first transplant in April—she remains cancer free and continues to work full-time as a gemologist. When she has a little free time, she enjoys gardening, sewing, or maybe traveling to national parks like Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon with her husband Rick.