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How Artificial Intelligence May Help Doctors Save Lives

May 3, 2017, 8:21 PM UTC

Artificial intelligence has shown promise in helping doctors predict which patients may be susceptible to chronic diseases like Alzheimer’s.

But despite the rapid advances, the healthcare industry is still in the early days of rolling out AI-powered treatments and drugs, Morten Sogaard, Pfizer’s vice president and head of genome sciences and technologies, said at Fortune’s Brainstorm Health conference in San Diego on Wednesday.

Pfizer (PFE) has been using AI techniques like machine learning for years to sift through data, help research new drug compounds (essentially the combination of multiple drugs), and determine the best participants for clinical trials, he said. “In some cases, it is nothing new,” Sogaard said about AI in healthcare.

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What is new, however, is the rising flood of information like genomic data and sensor data from medical devices, he explained. This influx has made it more difficult to understand key connections that could help researchers discover new treatments.

Currently, Pfizer is using deep learning, which Google (GOOG) helped to popularize as a way to train computers to recognize cats in photos, to mine electronic health records and lab data. By doing so, Pfizer can better understand how ailments like autoimmune and fatty liver diseases progress, he explained.

Sogaard said that these deep learning techniques have shown promise in finding disease patterns across large groups of people, but the ultimate goal is to eventually help individual patients.

Pfizer has also partnered with IBM (IBM) to use its Watson data-crunching technology in pharmaceutical research. But the company is also open to partnering with Google, Amazon (AMZN), and other cloud-computing providers to incorporate their own respective technologies.

Sogaard believes a handful of cloud computing providers will have AI technologies that drug companies could eventually use for research and development. However, “it will not all happen the day after tomorrow, of course,” he said.

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Federal regulations have not yet caught up to the rapid pace of innovation that could one day help predict and diagnose diseases using a combination of genomic, protein, and medical imaging data. But Sogaard is hopeful, and based on Pfizer’s meetings with regulators, he believes the Federal Drug Administration is “open-minded” to AI-assisted medical treatment.