Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning represent some of the most exciting potential advancements in the healthcare field. Over the last decade, this technology has demonstrated the ability to accelerate diagnostic processes while replicating doctor expertise in certain areas. Although few solutions have yet to gain approval and widespread usage, experts maintain optimism in the ability of AI to positively impact the treatment of a variety of diseases.
One such illness is Onchocerciasis, otherwise known as “River Blindness,” which is caused by parasitic worms transmitted by fly bites. This disease currently infects more than 20 million people, the majority of whom live in Africa, and can lead to permanent blindness when not dealt with effectively. While treatments exist, they are limited by patient circumstance and the maturity of the parasites.
“There are two main approaches to treating victims of River Blindness,” explains Prof. Dr. med. Achim Hoerauf, Director of the Institute for Medical Microbiology, Immunology, and Parasitology at the University Hospital Bonn. “First, we can use a mass administration of drugs. This requires annual or bi-annual application for many years and does not affect the worms once they reach adulthood.
“Second, a four-to-six-week use of Doxycycline can sterilize or kill adult worms, but this is not an appropriate treatment for children younger than eight or pregnant women. We need new ways of treating patients that are less restrictive, but this traditionally takes quite a bit of time to develop.”
Providing a platform for a competitive mindset
Seeing an opportunity to combat River Blindness, which is categorized as a neglected tropical disease, in support of a global effort to eliminate the disease in 10 countries by 2030, Capgemini partnered with the Institute for Medical Microbiology, Immunology and Parasitology (IMMIP) at the University Hospital Bonn to launch the next edition of Capgemini’s Global Data Science Challenge with support from Amazon Web Services (AWS).
“Before we started the challenge, there was a severe limitation in the number of people who could perform the tissue sample analysis needed to develop new treatments,” says Mike Miller, Director, AI & ML at Amazon Web Services. “And those experts needed a good amount of time to effectively perform that review accurately. This obviously meant that progress would be severely gated.
“Fortunately, we saw an opportunity to connect the Global Data Science Challenge program with a tangible need in an area that AI could clearly make a huge impact.”
Capgemini and the University Hospital Bonn
Capgemini and the University Hospital Bonn established an online working environment as well as communication options that would allow the competing teams to ask questions, work through problems, and receive critical announcements. Every team was provided a budget to use throughout certain phases of the project, a tool for automated testing that would determine the effectiveness of their submitted solution, and AWS services to use to train their AI models at scale. Finally, Capgemini and the University Hospital Bonn offered joint weekly office hours during which the teams could reach out to experts with any lingering questions.
“As a global leader in Data and AI, we have a responsibility and commitment to address real-world challenges,” Zhiwei Jiang, CEO of Insights & Data Global Business Line at Capgemini. “Over 20 million people worldwide suffer from River Blindness and have a high chance of going blind as a result.
“Capgemini’s Global Data Science Challenge provides the platform for our global teams to create new AI solutions that fight this neglected tropical disease by helping to speed up clinical trials and get future treatments to doctors at the University Hospital Bonn more quickly. Together, we will combat River Blindness with Data and AI.”
Throughout the competition, the teams were tasked with creating an AI-based solution on the AWS platform that could scan tissue sample images to identify the presence of parasitic worms. This would demonstrate not only the ability of AI to effectively diagnose the stage of worm development within a patient but also its capacity to speed up the review needed for new treatments.
Achim Hoerauf adds: “It was a different approach, for sure. With so many people working together and the competition providing extra motivation, we saw so many unique ways of applying artificial intelligence to the study of the disease. With so many minds working towards the same end result, we naturally saw a great deal of innovation emerge.”
Providing a key to eradicating River Blindness
By the end of the competition, Capgemini, AWS, and the University Hospital Bonn selected a winning team whose solution achieved the most improvement in tissue sample review accuracy. With Capgemini’s IT and AI expertise, the university’s deep knowledge of the disease, and the AWS platform, the distinct strengths of different groups were combined to realize the innovative ambitions behind the project.
“With every iteration, the Global Data Science Challenge has grown and found new opportunities to use our expertise to improve the world,” says Zhiwei Jiang. “Each time we’ve empowered our talented employees to contribute to our mission: using Data and AI to create a more sustainable and inclusive future.
“Supporting the development of new treatments for River Blindness is the exact kind of positive impact we knew the Global Data Science Challenge could make. We fully believe that the AI solution that resulted from this competition will help the scientists at the University Hospital Bonn advance their efforts to combat River Blindness.”
Following the success of the competition, the organizations are now looking to continue the imitative and further develop the winning solution. But there is even more work to be done that goes beyond sample review and AI.
“The challenge with River Blindness isn’t just about new treatments,” explains Achim Hoerauf. “We also have to be able to reach patients who are often in isolated places and perhaps don’t have easy access to medical facilities. So, distribution is a major factor that still needs to be dealt with. And then there’s the problem of climate change, which is changing the world in unpredictable ways. This phenomenon has the potential to cause populations of black flies to grow, which would mean more people being bitten and infected.
“So, there’s a long way to go. But this is an exciting start, and we can’t wait to see how AI will impact the medical field and the fight against River Blindness in the future.”