A Baltic city once famous for its revolutionary shipyards is now doing its bit for medicine
A little under four decades ago, Lech Walesa began in the city of Gdańsk what turned out to be a peaceful revolution that overturned communism and established democracy in Poland. Today, Marek Trojanowicz, another son of the city, is at the forefront of a different revolution: applying artificial intelligence (AI) to healthcare diagnostics. Mr Trojanowicz is the founder of BrainScan, a start-up with novel technology that is used to enable automatic detection and classification of pathological changes occurring in CT scans of the brain and now the same algorithms being used in the fight against the ravages of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Medical researchers earlier this year concluded that the coronavirus infection produces a picture on a chest CT scan that, while distinctive, is difficult to detect. Mr Trojanowicz, pondering this difficulty, developed an AI program that differentiated those lungs infected by the virus in their tomographic images.
“This technique helps radiologists diagnose Covid-19 patients far faster and more accurately than previously,” he says. His start-up, now 14-strong, is in the initial stages of a clinical trial on a group of several hundred patients.
“BrainScan is a typical example of an innovative start-up which needed both professional mentoring and financial assistance in order to fully develop its potential," says Balázs Fürjes, Director of EIT Health InnoStars, the EU Health assistance unit for the region, headquartered in Budapest. “There are dozens of excellent health-related start-ups in the more emerging regions, which covers countries from the Baltics to Greece, plus Italy and Portugal," Fürjes says, adding: “the trouble is, if these talented innovators fail to find the right mentors, their solutions are likely to never be fully developed. And the patient is the ultimate loser.”
Moreover, many less-developed areas within the European Union lack the mix of information hubs and informal social-professional hang-outs which have fostered innovation in hot spots such as California, London and Berlin.
This is one weakness that EIT Health is working to redress. EIT Health is a community of world-leading health innovators backed by the EU. They focus on building and growing businesses to create new products and services that progress healthcare and grow the economy. Headquartered in Munich, EIT Health operates across most of Europe.
“We discovered BrainScan thanks to our team's efforts in scouting the region in northern Poland for health-related start-ups. As part of this process, we helped set up an EIT Health Hub at the Medical University of Gdańsk, created to act as an interaction point between innovators, academics, and local community stakeholders, such as angel investors and seed-money providers,” Fürjes says.
The need for expert knowledge is especially true when it comes to applying and integrating Artificial Intelligence (AI) to medical treatment and diagnostics, an aspect of healthcare that Fürjes and the EIT Health team see as critical to meeting both current and future challenges in this sector.
“As we saw with BrainScan, by applying AI to analyse their results it has been possible to significantly shorten and automate the traditional work of a radiologist working with patients infected with the Covid-19 pathogen. This is just one of countless possible applications where we believe AI can revolutionise traditional medical procedures,” says Kurt Höller, Director of Business Creation at EIT Health.
Indeed, EIT Health has already helped mentor and fund a clutch of similar start-ups in the region, including InSimu, a Hungarian company that has created a virtual patient simulator to improve healthcare professionals’ clinical skills, and Vigo, a digital therapeutic treatment from Latvia designed to assist stroke victims.
Kurt Höller’s claim on the need for improved AI knowledge is supported by a report from EIT Health and McKinsey & Company, which stresses the urgent need to attract, educate and train a new generation of data-literate healthcare professionals to realise the full potential of AI.
The report, entitled Transforming healthcare with AI: The Impact on the workforce and organisations, explores the impact of AI on the future of European healthcare.
It found that better knowledge of basic digital skills, biomedical and data science, data analysis, and the fundamentals of genomics are critical to enabling AI and machine learning penetrate healthcare services.
“These subjects are rarely taught in a systematic fashion alongside traditional clinical sciences,” argues Jorge Fernández García, EIT Health Director of Innovation, and co-author of the report.
The incentives for healthcare systems to embrace these changes are all too clear. The World Health Organisation estimates that by 2030 the globe will be short of 9.9 million doctors, nurses and midwives.
“Through no fault of their own, today’s healthcare workforce is simply not equipped for the adoption of AI. Changing that would radically ease this shortfall in medical staff,” Mr García says.
Meanwhile, in Gdańsk, BrainScan, which EIT Health chose last year as one of 15 companies in the 'Headstart' accelerator programme, has made it to the grand finals of the EIT Health Catapult 2020 competition, which provides intensive training and mentoring prior to competing in front of a panel of investors for prizes worth up to EUR 40,000.
“EIT Health has given us incredible support, not only funding, but with an expanded network and trust within the medicinal world,” says Mr Trojanowicz. “People in London and Paris may not associate Gdańsk with innovative healthcare, but we are working to change that.”