I gotta feeling: what ASCO and Cannes tell us about AI in health 

artificial intelligence

I gotta feeling: what ASCO and Cannes tell us about AI in health 

By Sean Rooney, Ph.D. and Susanne Bobadilla, Ph.D., VMLY&R Health

When will.i.am spoke to the creative intelligentsia at Cannes Lions this year, his views on artificial intelligence may have struck a chord with health audiences on both sides of the clinical/commercial divide. AI, he said, is not a creative solution in and of itself: it can help identify opportunities, but it’s the creative’s job to make them sing. 

It’s an argument that resonates in health care. Because whether you’re an oncologist directing cancer care, or a health creative communicating science, the most consequential decisions are always human. Tech brainpower can inform our choices, but it takes empathy and real-world understanding to figure out what works best. 

The question of how health can maximize AI continues to stoke debate. We know it’s got huge potential, but opinion is divided on where we should apply it and how far we go. Despite this, there’s little doubt it’s going to change the world whatever happens. As will.i.am warned: “By 2033, you’re not going to recognize how we used to do things… The giants of today will not be the giants of tomorrow.” 

So how’s it playing out in health care? The answers, perhaps discretely, are on show every summer when, in the space of a few weeks, medical innovation makes the journey ‘from catwalk to closet’. One week it’s ASCO championing the science of tomorrow. The next it’s Cannes Lions, celebrating the health campaigns of today.  In the rush to analyze these flagship events, we tend to view them in isolation. But we shouldn’t. Because although they’re focused on opposite ends of the drug life cycle, there are common threads from which we can only learn. 

This year, ASCO made its way to the prize-winners’ lounge at Cannes Lions, with its experiential campaign, ‘The Most Beautiful Sound’, taking Gold in Pharma. In the process, two distinct worlds – seldom seen in the same sentence –  visibly crossed over. So, what did we learn? 

Collectively, Cannes and ASCO revealed the growing impact of AI on two completely different parts of the health ecosystem. Their proximity – scheduled back-to-back in June – allows us to compare how AI is being used in health, clinically and creatively, and whether it’s living up to the hype. The conclusion? From a clinical perspective, AI is beginning to deliver demonstrable value. But from a creative viewpoint, there are limitations to its capabilities that – in health at least – we may never overcome (and probably shouldn’t want to).  

Boom Boom Pow 

ASCO 2023

AstraZeneca’s booth at the 2023 ASCO Annual Meeting. Image courtesy of VMLY&R.

Clinically, ASCO confirmed what we already knew: AI is booming in clinical research, powering big gains in everything from drug discovery and development, to diagnostics, imaging and predictive health. For example, it’s influencing drug development platforms, allowing scientists to scour thousands of molecules to design compounds with longer efficacy to withstand resistance in different cancer pathways.  

In one session, we saw how scientists are leveraging AI to build a ‘3D atlas for cancer’, using machine learning to find new biomarkers and therapeutic targets from patient samples. Scientists think it could lead to a better understanding of cancer at the molecular level, and breakthrough treatments in diseases like triple-negative breast cancer, glioblastoma, and NSCLC. 

ASCO revealed gains in imaging and diagnostics too. We saw how AI can examine an infinite number of medical images – at speed and scale – to recognize patterns that are undetectable by humans. And it can scan billions of histologic stains to determine which are positive, which are negative and which are suspicious. One presentation showed how – using data from standard blood tests – machine learning achieved a specificity beyond 99% in detecting gastric cancer.  

AI is also informing drug combinations and dosing decisions that deliver better patient outcomes. For instance, one AI tool – CURATE.AI – is helping clinicians make optimal personalized chemotherapy doses for patients. In a trial of patients with advanced solid tumors and colorectal cancers, clinicians accepted almost 97% of doses recommended by the tool, with some patients receiving optimal doses that were around 20% lower on average. 

Ultimately, ASCO presented the clearest evidence yet that AI is our gateway to personalized medicines. It gives us the potential to scan every mutation or biopsy to create personalized treatment algorithms. And, in the future, we’ll be able to use genome-wide chips to analyze everyone with cancer to determine individual mutations, treatments, sequences, and potential responses. We’re not there yet, but it will come – and AI will be the vehicle that drives us there. 

Just can’t get enough 

If ASCO showed AI powering ahead in medical science, Cannes revealed its use in health communications is less mature. Pre-show predictions that AI-led campaigns would shine failed to materialize, with fewer entries than expected harnessing it. That’s not to say it didn’t feature or win. It did. For example, the Pharma Grand Prix went to Scrolling Therapy, an AI-powered tool that helps people with Parkinson’s Disease control their social media through facial expressions. Here, the creative itself is a therapy – using it exercises muscles in the face, helping delay symptoms of muscle atrophy. It’s a brilliant application of AI. 

However, such innovation proved the exception not the rule, with the consensus being that AI can’t yet better human creativity when addressing complex health problems. That belief was underlined by a mixed response for health campaigns that used ‘generative AI’. While many entries used AI-generated imagery to communicate ideas, judges felt much of the artwork was ‘human-like’… but not quite human enough yet. That’s a red line in health communications, where authenticity is everything. 

Of course, AI is already playing a role in driving creativity. Tech’s ability to crunch big data and identify trends is helping strategists gather the insights that power great ideas. But, with the odd exception, its functional application hasn’t yet become the creative itself. In other words, as will.i.am says, AI can get you to your ideas quicker, but it can’t do the creative for you. It can give you a focus, but it can’t give you creativity: that’s human. And therein lies the issue.

Where is the love? 

Fundamentally, although ASCO and Cannes Lions function at opposite ends of the spectrum, there’s a human thread running through both that ties everything together. Health is a human story, and it’s here where AI arguably pulls up short. It can amalgamate and accelerate an enormous evidence base, but health decisions are also influenced by unique human factors that don’t conform to academia or algorithm.  

When it comes to developing breakthrough therapies, there’s no doubt that AI is a gamechanger that will accelerate our journey to better care. However, we should never forget that responsibility for delivering that care is ultimately in the hands of humans – and they also have to consider human factors that aren’t driven by clinical parameters – i.e., patients’ needs, preferences, and behaviors. Understanding those factors only comes through dialogue and human engagement to ensure the patient voice is respected. AI cannot replicate it. 

It’s a similar story in health communications, where creative must connect with a human emotion if it’s to change behaviors. As we saw in Cannes, the most effective health campaigns are human-centered. They may rely on smart data and clever tech, but their stories speak more to the heart than the head. Right now, AI cannot do emotion and probably never will. It’s a big reason why it will struggle to unseat human creativity in health. 

In the final reckoning, will.i.am is right. Whether we’re delivering health care or communicating science, AI can get us there quicker. It can help identify opportunities, but making them happen needs the human touch.  

As the Black Eyed Peas sang in 2009: “I gotta feeling.” That’s the one thing AI lacks, and it’s why we can never take the human out of health innovation. 

Sean Rooney, VMLY&R Sean Rooney, Ph.D. is chief science officer at VMLY&R Health.
Suzanne Bobadilla, VMLY&R Susanne Bobadilla, Ph.D. is global director, medical strategy at VMLY&R Health