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  • Jack Lau

What should your kid study?

More than once, our friends, probably mistaken us as some wise people, asked, "What do you think my kid should study at college?" That seems like a benign question. What kind of parents wouldn't want to know what is best for their kids.

To be very honest, we have been changing our answers a few times just in the last few years. Yes, we know that in many countries the governments, including that of Hong Kong, have promoted the so called STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. But, as someone have been dabbling somewhat in what we thought should be technology, we are not sure if we truly understand the promotion. We have always thought that Engineering by definition involves math as a foundation and science as a basis. And, what is technology alone anyway? No wonder many are confused. We are too.

In any event, probably no body can master all the disciplines in an undergraduate curriculum anyway.

In a recent conversation, we told our friends that if we were young again, we would do a combination of

biology and statistics (from the computer science department).

This "weird" combination tops our list. If we ask any individual how long he wants to live, a not so surprising answer is to let nature takes it natural course. Some may even say that they don't want to live that long since the tail end of life is likely going to be mired with "health problems", degrading the quality of life and even the dignity of the individual. But, if we re-phrase the question, how long would one want to live, if he can be just as healthy, as if at their peak age of 25 or 35 or even 45 --- for as long as one lives, the answer would significantly change. Yes, I mean perfect health. No hip nor back problem, no dementia, no diabetics --- that kind of perfect health.

Well, if you think about it, what is impeding perfect from happening. We now have DNA technology, drugs, scans, and a lot of tools at our disposal. But, have not you not heard this before? Your doctor tells you that your distant elderly cousin has an X% chance of a cure? Or that there is a Y% chance that you will succumb to certain kind of diseases?

And, let's look at it from another angle, do you know that when a doctor suggests that you should take a drug or even a surgery, his advice is only based on statistics. In fact, sometime without your knowing it, the numbers are not really that favorable to you. In a popular TED talk by Daniel Levitin, a neuroscientist who wrote popular books such as "The Organized Mind", revealed some sobering facts in medicine. (By the way, that is a very good book. Out of 300 people who are told they that they need statin to fight cholesterol, only 1 patient actually can be helped by the drug. At the same time, 5 percent of those who take statin will have side effect. So, 15 people out of 300 will develop side effects. So should you really take statin to lower your cholesterol?


And, let's try another example. Nowadays you would need to spend only US$99 to find out about your ancestry. Or, you can spend US$199 to find out not just your ancestry but your traits and your health, like the likelihood of you getting the Pakinson's disease. The company that offers this service is called 23andMe. But there is a catch : it will only tell you the probability and is more accurate if you are a Caucasian (at least for now).

Yes, because it is based on sample size and statistics --- again.

So, now you see where we are going. Science is often not exact, when it comes to human body and conditions. What we need is a way to appreciate the sample size, the probability and the way to interpret different results.

A number of companies are tackling this problem from different angles. Microsoft has a project called Project Hanover. The whole idea is to use Big Data (we prefer to call it statistics) to tackle the imprecision in medicine. (Do you know that for the top 20 prescription drugs in the United States, 80% of the patients are non-responders?)

Normally, we don't do this, but this is so compelling, we decide to just take a screen shot at what Project Hanover does. So, let's make sure we state the source:


Bringing biomedicine and computer science together

Medicine today is imprecise. For the top 20 prescription drugs in the U.S., 80% of patients are non-responders. Recent disruptions in sensor technology have enabled precise categorization of diseases and treatment effects. For example, sequencing technology has reached the exciting point of $1000 human genome. Major cancer centers have begun to sequence tumors routinely for personalized cancer diagnosis and treatment.

However, progress in precision medicine is difficult, as genome-scale knowledge and reasoning become the ultimate bottleneck in deciphering cancer and other complex diseases. Today, it takes hours for a molecular tumor board of many highly trained specialists to review one patient’s omics data and make treatment decisions. With 1.6 million new cancer cases and 600 thousand deaths in the U.S. alone each year, this is clearly not scalable.

We envision that AI-powered decision support for precision medicine will become an explosive growth area in cloud-based health analytics. In Project Hanover, building on prior work in Literome, we are making progress in three directions:

  • Machine reading: We are developing NLP technology for converting text into structured databases, which enables us to build genome-scale knowledge bases by automatically reading millions of biomedical articles.

  • Cancer decision support: We are collaborating with the Knight Cancer Institute to develop AI technology for cancer precision treatment, with current focus on developing a machine learning approach to personalize drug combinations for Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML), where treatment hasn't improved in the past three decades.

  • Chronic disease management: Our long-term goal is to develop AI technology for predictive and preventive personalized medicine to combat the soaring cost in caring for cancer and other chronic diseases, which accounts for nearly 90% of the U.S. healthcare spending."

The world is surely changing rapidly, but as usual we want to think that the future is better. And, yes, you can live both longer and healthier. We believe.

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