Computers aiding cancer survival, reducing treatment side effects

University of Illinois Cancer Center member Liz Marai and her UIC colleagues received a $2.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to develop a computational artificial intelligence (AI) system they hope will optimize treatment for head and neck cancer.

The AI system is intended to serve as a decision support tool for physicians, who often use tumor board meetings to design treatment plans for complex patients.

“Chemotherapy and radiation can have very serious side effects, so knowing more about when it makes sense to prescribe these treatments and at what time points is valuable information,” Marai said. “We want to develop a scalable system based on real cancer patient data that can help guide physicians in how to treat specific patients.”

Their AI system – which is being developed with physicians at the University of Texas and data mining specialists at the University of Iowa – will use long-term outcomes data to recommend treatments. The system was developed using medical records data on head and neck cancer patients treated in Houston. The data includes information on symptoms, cancer stage, tumor type, tumor location, prescribed treatments, and medical images, such as PET and CT scans.

“We processed this data repository to extract anatomical features and to train the AI system so that it can learn how patients responded to different treatments and what their outcomes were. That way, when a new patient arrives, the AI model can consult that knowledge and the new patient’s data, and determine what treatments might work best, without having to rely on physician memory,” Marai said. “The AI system is not meant to replace the physician’s opinion, it is a decision tool to consult that could help improve patient survival while minimizing side effects from chemotherapy and radiation.”

Cancers of the head and neck include those found in the oral cavity and pharynx, larynx, paranasal sinuses and nasal cavity, and salivary glands. Head and neck cancer account for about 4% of all cancers in the United States, and are much more common in men than women. Alcohol and tobacco use cause 75% of head and neck cancers.

The most common site for head and neck tumors is the oral cavity. Incidence rates are higher in Illinois compared to the United States, but lower in Cook County, part of the University of Illinois Cancer Center’s catchment area.

Overall, incidence rates are highest in Caucasians in all geographic locations, although the gap between white and Black patients in Cook County is narrow. Blacks in Cook County have 33% higher rates of oral cavity and pharyngeal cancer compared to Blacks in the U.S.

Hispanics have the lowest incidence rates in all geographic locations.

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