The U.K. Prime Minister, Theresa May has made her first appearance in a series on industrial strategy, whereby she has pledged millions of pounds of government funding to develop artificial intelligence to transform outcomes through early diagnosis of cancer and chronic disease. 

In a speech in Mansfield, United Kingdom, she said, “Late diagnosis of otherwise treatable illnesses is one of the biggest causes of avoidable deaths,” reports The Guardian. “The development of smart technologies to analyse great quantities of data quickly and with a higher degree of accuracy than is possible by human beings opens up a whole new field of medical research and gives us a new weapon in our armoury in the fight against disease,” she added.

May is urging industry and charities to work together with the NHS to develop algorithms that can use patient data and lifestyle information to warn GPSs when a patient should be referred to an oncologist or another specialist. The plans predict at least 50,000 people being diagnosed at an early stage of prostate, ovarian, lung or bowel cancer each year. It is thought that AI could help prevent 22,000 deaths from cancer each year by 2033, and give patients an additional five years of healthy, independent life by 2035. The NHS has collected a large and valuable amount of data, with few other providers having access to such comparable data. The government is convinced that internet companies that are used to very large-scale data analysis could take a mix of genetic and medical data to produce algorithms able to swiftly generate information for a GP. 

Such a proposal would include allowing commercial firms to NHS data for profit, raising controversial questions about the ethics of data sharing, privacy, and making money from a public asset. May anticipated the risk of opposition in her Davos speech in January, when she spelt out plans for a council on data ethics. Despite figures steadily improving, the UK has less good outcomes for common cancers such as bowel, breast, ovarian and prostate cancer, than most other comparable economies. Campaigners blame funding shortages, but research by the King’s Fund also discovered that hugely increased demand also played a key role in making it increasingly hard to meet targets. 

Sir Harpal Kumar, the chief executive of Cancer Research UK, welcomed the recent announcement. “If this infrastructure enabled us to reduce late diagnosis by half in the next 15 years, then for just four types of cancers – lung, bowel, prostate, and ovary – 22,000 fewer people each year would die within five years of their diagnosis. Our goal is that three in four people will survive their cancer by 2034 and we support efforts that will help us achieve this ambition,” he said. 

The strategy is based on incentivising technological innovation. Over £1.4 billion has been invested in research and development to support the Grand Challenge programme, which reflects four global trends: artificial intelligence; clean growth; healthy ageing; and the future of mobility.