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Artificial Intelligence, 'Virtual Biopsies' May Be The Future Of Understanding Brain Tumors

BOSTON (CBS) -- Artificial intelligence is being used increasingly in medicine to make services more efficient and improve patient care. Now, local researchers plan to use the technology to perform "virtual biopsies" of brain tumors.

Steven Hibbert considered himself a healthy guy. Then suddenly his life changed on a dime. "I was just kind of sitting there, reading the paper, and went into a seizure," said Hibbert.

The 55-year-old Cape Cod resident was rushed to the hospital and got the news no one wants to hear. He had a brain tumor.

"Life changing as my wife always says," explained Hibbert. "It feels like everything got flipped over in our life."

Steven Hibbert (WBZ-TV)

While Hibbert's tumor was clearly visible on scans, doctors could not tell what type it was without removing it, so this past January, Steven underwent surgery. He still had to wait two long weeks for genetic analysis to finally learn he had a grade 3 anaplastic astrocytoma.

Dr. Omar Arnaout of Brigham and Women's Hospital is Steven's neurosurgeon.

"How good would it be if I knew ahead of time before, we did surgery, what it is -- and even better if I knew what kind of mutations it had -- so I can tell him and his family upfront 'here is your diagnosis, here is your prognosis and then here is what we need to do about it.' And some cases, not his but in some cases, that can lead to avoiding surgery completely if you have an inoperable brain tumor," he said.

The key is artificial intelligence. "In broad terms, artificial intelligence is our ability to have computers do stuff for us without having to explicitly tell the computer how to do it," explained Dr. Arnaout.

Dr. Omar Arnaout of Brigham and Women's Hospital (WBZ-TV)

He and a team of researchers are taking thousands of patient MRIs, matching them up with biopsy results and allowing a computer program to learn how to identify a tumor without surgery, creating a virtual biopsy.

That will allow doctors to select the best plan of action and answer important questions for patients like, "Will I live long enough to see my grandkids?"

As for Hibbert, Dr. Arnaout is somewhat optimistic.

Brain Scan (WBZ-TV)

"You would expect, hopefully with a good response to the treatment that he had that [Steven] would have several years."

But Hibbert, who just took up beekeeping, is planning for a lot longer than that.

"I'm the kind of guy that thinks 20 to 25 years," he said. "At least, that I'm going to stick it out and stay with it. I have too much to do on this earth to not be here."

Dr. Arnaout hopes to be able to use this artificial intelligence technology to help patients like Hibbert better understand their brain tumors within the next year.

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