AI may help burn patients live longer

A newly unlocked link between injury and cancer may improve burn patient outcomes and ultimately—lives.

“We’re looking at the long-term effects of burns on the health of a person over their lifetime,” Dr. Mark Fear told Industrious. “Our group focuses on the impact of non-severe burn injuries, meaning smaller injuries. These make up around 90 percent of the caseload in Perth and similar cities.”

A senior research fellow with the Australia-based Fiona Wood Foundation, Dr. Fear is part of a team working on advancing research for burn patients—specifically on the link between burn injury and cancer. Professor Fiona Wood initiated the project in 2009 when an eight-year-old who’d been treated for severe burn injuries died of cancer a few years after their treatment.

“Using population data from Western Australia, and Scotland, we found that people with a burn injury are more susceptible to cancer later in their lives,” Dr. Fear said.

The team set out to understand what about a burn injury causes that susceptibility, and in 2016 brought together an immunology/cancer group, a burns group, and IBM.

IBM’s AI discovery solution, Watson for Drug Discovery, studied millions of pages of life sciences literature to extract all the genetic relationships attributed to burns and cancer.

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“We were essentially looking for a needle in a haystack,” Professor Fiona Wood said. “This time we had a seriously powerful magnet in using Watson to accelerate our discovery phase of the research.”

Thus far, the team has made two important discoveries. The first is that burn injury seems to increase cancer metastasis (a medical term for cancer that spreads to a different part of the body). The second is that the burn might lead to changes in immune surveillance and control of tumors.

“We now have a way to investigate the mechanisms that link burns to cancer,” Dr. Fear said. A good model that showed that link wasn’t previously available.

“Without this, we couldn’t ever understand what is happening—so it is a big deal for us,” he said.

Now that the team has identified that a link between burns and cancer exists, they are drilling down to define what that actual link is.

One theory is that the burn changes immune function in the long-term, but the team is not sure how. Dr. Fear underlines just how critical the three-way collaboration between IBM, immunology, and his team is as the project moves forward.

“It’s really important to bring together the different expertise,” he said, “as we can’t approach these problems with just a good knowledge of burns. We need the other knowledge and technology to make progress into areas where we cannot be experts, but which clearly impact our field.”

The team is now conducting more complex experiments that will look at relevant immune cell changes and functional changes due to burn injury. Once they know why burn injury leads to increased susceptibility to cancer, the team can look to change treatment for acute patients, or better monitor them after discharge.

“We hope—and this is research so it takes time—that we will understand what is causing this and be able to use that to treat patients better,” he said. “And this may impact a much wider patient set too, as burns really are a subset of trauma.”

Ultimately, his goal is improved patient outcomes and lives after what are often devastating injuries (“for parents too, in particular when it’s children who are burned,” he adds).

“Bear in mind the age group most likely to get a burn is zero to four years old,” Dr. Fear said. “These kids have a lifetime ahead of them. We need to make sure their lives are as healthy as possible.”