Brittany Wenger isn't your average high-school student: she taught a computer how to diagnose leukaemia.
The 18-year-old student from Sarasota, Florida, built a custom, cloud-based "artificial neural network" to find patterns in genetic expression profiles to diagnose patients with an aggressive form of cancer called mixed-lineage leukaemia (MLL). Simply put, this means Wenger taught the computer how to diagnose leukaemia by creating a diagnostic tool for doctors to use.
Since artificial neural networks are programs that model the brain's neurons and their interconnections, Wenger said they "can actually learn to detect things that transcend human knowledge".
Mixed-lineage leukaemia generally has poor prognosis, and the five-year survival rate is only 40 per cent. Since Wenger said "different types of cancer have different molecular fingerprints," she discovered four particular gene expressions in the body that can be targeted to create MLL-specific drugs. Not only did she create a powerful diagnostic tool for this cancer, but her findings might also help develop new treatments.
The most amazing part about science is you can answer questions and really revolutionise the world and our knowledge base.Brittany Wenger, 18
Wenger, who is graduating soon from The Out-of-Door Academy in Sarasota, previously used artificial-intelligence technology to diagnose breast cancer. With a non-invasive procedure, her technology was able to help determine whether a breast mass was malignant or benign. Wenger's new findings with leukaemia prove that her Cloud4Cancer service can be altered to improve diagnostics for multiple cancer classifications.
Wenger described herself as always having been "a very naturally curious person".
"The most amazing part about science is you can answer questions and really revolutionise the world and our knowledge base," she said.
It all started in year seven, when Wenger took a futuristic-thinking course. She became obsessed with the concept of artificial intelligence, and started learning how to code. Later, when Wenger was in year 10, the issue hit close to home: her cousin was diagnosed with breast cancer.
"I became really interested in applying my passion for artificial intelligence to my newfound interest in breast cancer diagnostics," she said. That eventually led to her initial breast-cancer diagnosis project, which she worked on for a few years.
But Wenger wasn't done. "I wanted to prove that the infrastructure I built could work with multiple diseases," she said. That's what led to her new MLL cancer-diagnosis innovation.
Wenger was recognised at last week's Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Phoenix, Arizona, for her work in leukaemia diagnosis. The world's largest science fair brought together 1600 high-school finalists from all over the world, who competed for more than $US4 million in awards. Wenger received a $US3000 award in the competition's computer science category, as well as Go Daddy's $US1500 Data Award, Google's CS Connect $US10,000 award and a $US500 award from the IEEE Computer Society. In addition, back in March, she won eighth place and $US20,000 in Intel's 2013 Science Talent Search – a prestigious high-school science competition – for her work in breast-cancer diagnosis.
Moving forward, Wenger said she wants to be a paediatric oncologist, and will pursue her studies at Duke University. Using her computer science background, she also wants to continue her research to help people who are working to find cures for cancer.
You can learn more about Wenger's work from one of her four TEDx talks.
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