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."
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- How to improve your working memory
- A plain old solution to stress
- Progress on a deadly cancer for first time since 1995*
- Rise of the robot surgeon
- Tomato brain power
And in an honorable mention this week, new research on the gut connection to better brain health after strokes.
* The methodology for this study has come under scrutiny here.
Elaine Kamil had just returned home after a few days of business meetings in 2013 when she started having chest pains. At first Kamil, then 66, wasn't worried—she had had some chest pain before and recently went to a cardiologist to do a stress test, which was normal.
"I can't be having a heart attack because I just got checked," she thought, attributing the discomfort to stress and high demands of her job. A pediatric nephrologist at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, she takes care of critically ill children who are on dialysis or are kidney transplant patients. Supporting families through difficult times and answering calls at odd hours is part of her daily routine, and often leaves her exhausted.
She figured the pain would go away. But instead, it intensified that night. Kamil's husband drove her to the Cedars-Sinai hospital, where she was admitted to the coronary care unit. It turned out she wasn't having a heart attack after all. Instead, she was diagnosed with a much less common but nonetheless dangerous heart condition called takotsubo syndrome, or broken heart syndrome.
A heart attack happens when blood flow to the heart is obstructed—such as when an artery is blocked—causing heart muscle tissue to die. In takotsubo syndrome, the blood flow isn't blocked, but the heart doesn't pump it properly. The heart changes its shape and starts to resemble a Japanese fishing device called tako-tsubo, a clay pot with a wider body and narrower mouth, used to catch octopus.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks," explains Noel Bairey Merz, the cardiologist at Cedar Sinai who Kamil went to see after she was discharged.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks."
But even though the heart isn't permanently damaged, mortality rates due to takotsubo syndrome are comparable to those of a heart attack, Merz notes—about 4-5 percent of patients die from the attack, and 20 percent within the next five years. "It's as bad as a heart attack," Merz says—only it's much less known, even to doctors. The condition affects only about 1 percent of people, and there are around 15,000 new cases annually. It's diagnosed using a cardiac ventriculogram, an imaging test that allows doctors to see how the heart pumps blood.
Scientists don't fully understand what causes Takotsubo syndrome, but it usually occurs after extreme emotional or physical stress. Doctors think it's triggered by a so-called catecholamine storm, a phenomenon in which the body releases too much catecholamines—hormones involved in the fight-or-flight response. Evolutionarily, when early humans lived in savannas or forests and had to either fight off predators or flee from them, these hormones gave our ancestors the needed strength and stamina to take either action. Released by nerve endings and by the adrenal glands that sit on top of the kidneys, these hormones still flood our bodies in moments of stress, but an overabundance of them could sometimes be damaging.
A study by scientists at Harvard Medical School linked increased risk of takotsubo to higher activity in the amygdala, a brain region responsible for emotions that's involved in responses to stress. The scientists believe that chronic stress makes people more susceptible to the syndrome. Notably, one small study suggested that the number of Takotsubo cases increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are no specific drugs to treat takotsubo, so doctors rely on supportive therapies, which include medications typically used for high blood pressure and heart failure. In most cases, the heart returns to its normal shape within a few weeks. "It's a spontaneous recovery—the catecholamine storm is resolved, the injury trigger is removed and the heart heals itself because our bodies have an amazing healing capacity," Merz says. It also helps that tissues remain intact. 'The heart cells don't die, they just aren't functioning properly for some time."
That's the good news. The bad news is that takotsubo is likely to strike again—in 5-20 percent of patients the condition comes back, sometimes more severe than before.
That's exactly what happened to Kamil. After getting her diagnosis in 2013, she realized that she actually had a previous takotsubo episode. In 2010, she experienced similar symptoms after her son died. "The night after he died, I was having severe chest pain at night, but I was too overwhelmed with grief to do anything about it," she recalls. After a while, the pain subsided and didn't return until three years later.
For weeks after her second attack, she felt exhausted, listless and anxious. "You lose confidence in your body," she says. "You have these little twinges on your chest, or if you start having arrhythmia, and you wonder if this is another episode coming up. It's really unnerving because you don't know how to read these cues." And that's very typical, Merz says. Even when the heart muscle appears to recover, patients don't return to normal right away. They have shortens of breath, they can't exercise, and they stay anxious and worried for a while.
Women over the age of 50 are diagnosed with takotsubo more often than other demographics. However, it happens in men too, although it typically strikes after physical stress, such as a triathlon or an exhausting day of cycling. Young people can also get takotsubo. Older patients are hospitalized more often, but younger people tend to have more severe complications. It could be because an older person may go for a jog while younger one may run a marathon, which would take a stronger toll on the body of a person who's predisposed to the condition.
Notably, the emotional stressors don't always have to be negative—the heart muscle can get out of shape from good emotions, too. "There have been case reports of takotsubo at weddings," Merz says. Moreover, one out of three or four takotsubo patients experience no apparent stress, she adds. "So it could be that it's not so much the catecholamine storm itself, but the body's reaction to it—the physiological reaction deeply embedded into out physiology," she explains.
Merz and her team are working to understand what makes people predisposed to takotsubo. They think a person's genetics play a role, but they haven't yet pinpointed genes that seem to be responsible. Genes code for proteins, which affect how the body metabolizes various compounds, which, in turn, affect the body's response to stress. Pinning down the protein involved in takotsubo susceptibility would allow doctors to develop screening tests and identify those prone to severe repeating attacks. It will also help develop medications that can either prevent it or treat it better than just waiting for the body to heal itself.
Researchers at the Imperial College London found that elevated levels of certain types of microRNAs—molecules involved in protein production—increase the chances of developing takotsubo.
In one study, researchers tried treating takotsubo in mice with a drug called suberanilohydroxamic acid, or SAHA, typically used for cancer treatment. The drug improved cardiac health and reversed the broken heart in rodents. It remains to be seen if the drug would have a similar effect on humans. But identifying a drug that shows promise is progress, Merz says. "I'm glad that there's research in this area."
This article was originally published by Leaps.org on July 28, 2021.