In early November, researchers presented new findings at the 2019 National Cancer Research Institute (NCRI) conference in Glasgow that show that blood samples, combined with artificial analysis (AI), could speed up the diagnosis of brain tumours. The new test relies on an existing technique to analyse blood, called infrared spectroscopy, combined with an AI programme trained to spot the chemicals that brain tumours typically shed into the blood.
To date, the test has been trialled on blood samples taken from 400 patients referred for brain scans at the Western General Hospital in Edinburgh. Using the test, the researchers were able to correctly identify 82% of brain tumours. They were also able to identify 84% of patients who did not have brain tumours, meaning the test has a low rate of ‘false positives’.
It’s an exciting step forward in early detection of a notoriously difficult-to-spot condition. According to Dr Paul Brennan, senior clinical lecturer and honorary consultant neurosurgeon at the University of Edinburgh and one of the researchers leading the project, more than six out of ten patients are only diagnosed with a brain tumour once they’ve shown up at an emergency department, even though they may have previously seen their GP several times with symptoms such as headaches or memory problems. As Dr Brennan pointed out:
A headache could be a sign of a brain tumour, but it is more likely to be something else and it’s not practical to send lots of people for a brain scan, just in case it’s a tumour. The challenge is identifying who to prioritize for an urgent scan.
Funding research and supporting patients
Dr Brennan is one of many specialists worldwide whose work is part-funded by The Brain Tumour Charity, based in Farnborough, UK. But beyond its support for research, another major strand of the charity’s mission is to support brain tumour patients themselves, as well as their friends and families, explains CEO Sarah Lindsell.
With that in mind, The Brain Tumour Charity has put Salesforce.com’s Interaction Studio to work, to give them a more personalized experience of the charity’s website, she says:
That really, really matters, because if you imagine that moment when you or your child has just been diagnosed, you could be sitting in A&E [Accident & Emergency], struggling with Wi-Fi, we will give you cut-through to the information you need at that particular point in time.
For example, if you’re about to undergo surgery, you will be advised to ask your surgeon to take a biopsy of the tumour they remove and store it in a particular way, so that you have the option to seek immunotherapy treatment further down the line. That’s not something a surgeon will likely do automatically, adds Lindsell:
Or, it may be late at night, you’ve put your children to bed, but you’ve got urgent questions about changes in behaviour you’ve realized you’re seeing in your newly diagnosed partner. You don’t want to know how you can fundraise for us by holding a bake sale or running a marathon - all the stuff you’d normally see when a Google search takes you to a charity’s website. Instead, we’ll serve up information that helps you understand what’s going on, based on the fact that your search contained terms such as ‘brain tumour’, ‘newly diagnosed’, ‘behaviour’ and perhaps the type of tumour.
Salesforce's Interaction Studio is part of the company’s Marketing Cloud offering and is designed to help companies deliver value to the customer by anticipating and driving personalized conversations with them - but in this case, it’s about connecting patients with relevant information on their condition, and keeping that information timely as the condition progresses. As Lindsell puts it:
So we’ve mapped out all of those journeys, and as people become repeat visitors to our website or callers to our helpline, we recognize who they are immediately, we know what information they’ve already accessed. When you’re dealing with trauma, you don’t want to trawl through the same information again, or provide the same details. You haven’t got the time or energy to waste on that.
And as people progress through the disease, they want different things from us. Newly diagnosed patients don’t want to think about putting their affairs in order or hospice care, but these are certainly issues we can help with further down the line, when they need to start considering them. And we can provide information in a really sensitive and moderated way, because we know the journey they’ve been on.
It’s a relatively unusual use of Salesforce by a non-profit organization, she acknowledges. While the cloud giant provides plenty of functionality specifically geared to the needs of non-profits - tools to manage fundraising programmes and connect with supporters, for example - Lindsell preferred to focus first on the charity’s goals of boosting survival rates and quality of life for patients, and work backwards from there when identifying technology to support those aims:
It was a mindshift, but our thinking was along the lines of, ‘Why shouldn’t we use the evidence from other industries? If it works for banks in driving customer behaviour, why can’t we use the same tools to improve patient outcomes?’”
As a charity, we are so determined to meet our end goals that, despite having to shift some resources around in-house to accommodate this project, it was worth the effort. If we could do it this way, and it would be more impactful, they why wouldn’t we do it?