The human race has long been apprehensive about the rise of the machine –his own creation, overpowering him by being sharper and powerful. Although artificial intelligence and machine learning are rapidly conquering the world and leading the fourth industrial revolution, it is met with hesitancy and fear. However, this may be quelled by a new claim that AI might find the cure to cancer.

This idea may seem like it is out of a sci-fi film, but it is not that far from reality. The scientists at the University of Waterloo have employed machine learning to identify tumour-specific antigens, which could lead to new cancer treatments and vaccines. The possibility of such vaccines began to take shape in 2008 when geneticists published the first sequence of a cancerous tumour cell. Finding a cure for cancer is the need of the hour because conventional chemotherapies take a heavy toll on healthy cells and aren’t always effective against tumours. Unlike chemotherapy, the vaccine limits damage to healthy cells, by using the body’s natural defences to destroy tumour cells.

In one form or another, cancer research has been underway for more than 200 years. But, why do they claim that there is only treatment but no cure for cancer? To answer this, we must understand that cancer is just a short word for a variety of diseases. If we take the analogy of a fruit, it is a general word that covers many kinds: apples, cranberries, pineapples, and much more. Each of them is different in terms of taste, structure, and chemical composition. Likewise, “cancer” is a catch-all word for more than 200 types, including cancers of the bladder, brain, breast, colon, eye, and more. Some of them grow slowly, whereas others spread quickly. Each kind starts in a different part of your body and has its own grades, stages, and symptoms. Since tumours have different neoantigens, finding them is difficult – scientists compare it to looking for a needle in a bulky haystack. Consequently, there’s no one-size-fits-all cure for cancer. Here is where AI can help.

Scientists applied methods similar to natural language processing to create a machine-learning model which can determine the amino acid sequence of neoantigens based on the one-letter amino acid code. For producing this custom vaccine, the patient must undergo surgery where a part of the tumour is removed and transferred to the lab. The lump is then cut into three. From the first part, the laboratory software analyzes the DNA to establish the mutations of the tumour. The second piece provides information from RNA. It helps the scientists identify the parts of the mutations expressed at the protein level. They use the third piece of the tumour for performing experiments. Finally, the software sequences and analyzes this information to design the personalized vaccine.

Personalized treatment will significantly improve the survivability of cancer. Ming Li, one of the authors of the study, said: “Cancer immunotherapy is quickly becoming the fourth modality of cancer treatment, alongside surgery, chemotherapy, and radiotherapy. Every patient is different and every cancer is different, so cancer treatment shouldn’t be the same for all. Treatment should be tailored to the patient and that’s what our personalized machine learning model allows us to do.”

Scientists are on the cusp of commercializing the first personalized cancer vaccine. BioNTech, the German biotech that developed a leading Covid-19 vaccine in partnership with Pfizer, said on October 1, 2021, that it had dosed the first patient in a 200-subject trial of a personalized mRNA-based cancer vaccine on certain patients with high-risk colorectal cancer. Commercializing on a large scale can be tricky because once produced, the vaccine needs to be promptly delivered to the hospital since delays could be deadly.

The cancer vaccine, which triggers a person’s immune system to identify a tumour by its unique mutations, could effectively shut down many types of cancers. The good news is that universities and biotech companies are conducting clinical trials to study the safety and effectiveness of this vaccine. The vaccine will be akin to a miracle when commercialized.

Safa Saliha