Can technology really revolutionise health?

Healthcare is one major area where there’s real excitement about the improvements that advances in artificial intelligence could bring into our lives.

BBC’s Tech Tent asked three Oxford-based scientists working across academia and the commercial world whether, amidst all the hope and hype, real innovations are beginning to transform the way patients are treated.

Michalis Papadakis is chief executive of Brainomix, whose technology is already entering hospitals to help doctors in the diagnosis and treatment of strokes after years in the laboratory. He says there is huge potential to improve outcomes for stroke patients: “Currently every 30 minutes, a stroke patient who could have been saved, dies or remains permanently disabled, not because of the stroke, but because they’re admitted in a hospital that doesn’t have the expertise to diagnose and select the patient for a life-saving treatment path.”

His product, developed with data from thousands of brain scans, helps doctors interpret images and make the fast decisions that are needed when it is suspected that a patient has suffered a stroke.

For Antoniya Georgieva is ten years into a project that involves monitoring babies in the womb. Her research depends on gathering a vast store of data, in this case from foetal monitoring units in labour wards in Oxford dating back to 1993. The aim is to automate the process where doctors and midwives can be alerted to the rare cases when a baby is suffering breathing problems and could end up suffering brain damage.

“We are taking the burden from having to look at complex graphs, complex information that takes time, that humans are just not so good at.”

Instead, her system monitors all those graphs and tells the human experts exactly when they need to be worried.

With a new drug taking as long as 30 years and costing as much as $2bn (£1.6bn) to develop, Charlotte Deane, Professor of Structural Bioinformatics at Oxford University, and her doctoral students are looking at the problem of using AI in drug discovery and the lengthy and expensive process of creating new medicines.

Prof Deane says the hype around AI is not helpful but progress is being made: “The challenges are really huge, because biological data is noisy and difficult to deal with. But the algorithms we now have are starting to give us the opportunity to make a real difference.”