At 82 years old, with an aggressive form of blood cancer that six courses of chemotherapy had failed to eliminate, “Paul” appeared to be out of options. With each long and unpleasant round of treatment, his doctors had been working their way down a list of common cancer drugs, hoping to hit on something that would prove effective—and crossing them off one by one. The usual cancer killers were not doing their job.
With nothing to lose, Paul’s doctors enrolled him in a trial set up by the Medical University of Vienna in Austria, where he lives. The university was testing a new matchmaking technology developed by a UK-based company called Exscientia that pairs individual patients with the
precise drugs they need, taking into account the subtle biological differences between people.
The researchers took a small sample of tissue from Paul (his real name is not known because his identity was obscured in the trial). They divided the sample, which included both normal cells and cancer cells, into more than a hundred pieces and exposed them to various cocktails of drugs. Then, using robotic automation and computer vision (machine-learning models trained to identify small changes in cells), they watched to see what would happen.
In effect, the researchers were doing what the doctors had done: trying different drugs to see what worked. But instead of putting a patient through multiple months-long courses of chemotherapy, they were testing dozens of treatments all at the same time.