Dutch computer programme predicts future illnesses

What if you knew in advance what illness you would get?

Forewarned is forearmed, and knowing in advance if a person will develop a certain disease would be a huge advantage for both individuals and the worldwide medical industry.

A new diagnostic computer programme, developed by Wiro Niessen, Professor of Medical Imaging at Erasmus University Medical Center and TU Delft, aims to provide exactly that information.

By drawing on a vast database of medical records, the programme can predict illnesses long before a person is likely to suffer them. The system is currently capable of predicting cardiovascular diseases and neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s.

It is anticipated that, as the computer programme is further developed and its database expanded, it will increase its capabilities to predict other diseases and health conditions.

A new diagnostic tool: how it works

Just as a doctor draws on his or her experience to diagnose a patient, so too the computer system draws on its database to determine the patient's future condition, but with one major difference: the programme can combine and analyse a much greater quantity of medical data than any single human could process.

"For many tasks the computer will be superior to man" stated Professor Niessen, referring to its data-processing capacity.

In their Rotterdam scan study, Niessen’s team have already entered 12.000 MRI and CT scans into the new system, teaching the computer to recognise the patterns of disease development.

By referring to scan histories of both healthy and sick patients, who have been tracked for five or 10 years, the programme tracks the evolution and tendencies of diseases, then applies them to screening scans of new patients.

In this way the system can help doctors decide when and which (preventative) treatment can be used on a patient. However Professor Niessen emphasises that the system will not be capable of predicting precisely how a person’s life will unfold or the specific location where a disease will occur.

Benefits for patients

Not only useful for Dutch healthcare, this programme would be a boon for the worldwide medical system as it would allow early measures to be taken thus reducing medical costs and potentially saving lives.

When questioned as to how people would feel being confronted with their future health problems by attending such a screening , Niessen sees far more pros that cons. "The earlier we identify a disease, the better we can predict disease progression. Then you can adjust the treatment."

Niessen also draws the comparison with screenings for breast cancer, "This screening is not flawless, but it’s worth the effort. You can save lives with it. Each time you must weigh up whether such a screening can help."

Niessen does not see the programme replacing existing doctors or reducing the human side of health care. It would instead serve as a diagnostic tool, and would not stand in for a real doctor.

A prize-winning project

The diagnostic computer programme has already met with an extremely positive response, winning the Simon Stevin Meesterschap, the largest prize in the Netherlands for research in the technical and scientific fields.

The honorary title is also accompanied by 500.000 euros to spend on research of the winner’s choice.

Sources: Nos, Trouw

Beatrice Clarke


Beatrice Clarke

Beatrice is a native Melbournian who moved to the Netherlands in 2009. With a background in independent publishing and fashion, Beatrice honed her understanding of Dutch language and culture working...

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