One year on from its inception, MIT/J-Clinic Chair Professor Anantha P. Chandrakasan talks to Opening Doors about progress on this groundbreaking MIT/Community Jameel collaboration.

Anantha P. Chandrakasan, Dean of the MIT School of Engineering and the Vannevar Bush Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, was appointed Chair of the Abdul Latif Jameel Clinic for Machine Learning in Health (J-Clinic) in October 2018.  Over the last year, Anantha and the J-Clinic team have worked hard to establish strong relationships with healthcare providers in the US and further afield, with the aim of expanding the boundaries of global healthcare research to deliver real-world impacts in disease prevention, diagnostics, and drug discovery and development.

Meet the J-Clinic leadership team (L-R):  Phillip A. Sharp, Chair, Advisory Board; James J. Collins & Regina Barizlay, Faculty Leads; Anantha P. Chandrakasan, Chair, J-Clinic.
Meet the J-Clinic leadership team (L-R): Phillip A. Sharp, Chair, Advisory Board; James J. Collins & Regina Barizlay, Faculty Leads; Anantha P. Chandrakasan, Chair, J-Clinic.

Q. It’s one year since J-Clinic was launched. Are you pleased with progress so far?

AC: It’s been a tremendous year for J-Clinic.  Our biggest achievement has been to define a community of researchers working at the intersection of health and artificial intelligence, in areas such as early diagnosis of diseases, discovery of drugs, and personalized medicine.

A vital part of this step is raising awareness of this community at MIT, and we have started to do that very successfully over the past 12 months.  Our entire modus operandi is based on collaborating with healthcare providers, and that takes time to organize, but our Principal Investigators (PIs) are now working with hospitals around the US – and already beginning to make significant progress.

Of course, setting up any new research center takes time.  During our first year we have focused on putting out a call for proposals, getting the resulting proposals reviewed, and getting faculty members funded. We’ve also recruited some of the best talent at MIT, with graduate fellowship awards that allowed us to bring in computer science and biological engineering talent to our community.

Q. Are any projects making particularly good progress?

AC: In total, we’re currently funding 18 projects, all of which are working with hospitals in some capacity.  Most of these hospitals are in the US, but we’re also in discussions with other hospitals,  including one in Japan which Mr Jameel introduced us to – and we’re making good progress.

Regina Barzilay, Delta Electronics Professor, EECS, Faculty Co-Lead, J-Clinic, MacArthur Fellow
Regina Barzilay, Delta Electronics Professor, EECS, Faculty Co-Lead, J-Clinic, MacArthur Fellow

One of our faculty leads at J-Clinic, Regina Barzilay, is working in collaboration with Massachusetts General Hospital here in Boston, to help predict breast cancer using mammogram data.

Regina is also behind our annual symposium into AI-powered drug discovery and manufacturing that will be taking place in Spring 2020.  Community Jameel has been instrumental in publicizing this workshop.

Another member of our community, professor Dina Katabi, is working in collaboration with the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. She is doing amazing work to monitor Epilepsy seizures using radio signals without any devices on the patient’s body.

That’s just getting off the ground, but it looks promising.

Q. How receptive are hospitals to these kinds of collaborations?

AC: Over the last decade, hospitals have become very interested in embracing AI to make better diagnoses and treatments.  The understanding of what this incredible technology is capable of is still developing, but there’s an enormous potential for research in this area, and I think they are beginning to appreciate that.

For example, in many cases, it’s not enough to merely diagnose disease.  We need to be able to explain why the algorithm did what it did.  Our goal is to augment the knowledge of medical professionals and help them provide better medical treatment.

We’re thinking about how machines and humans can work together in better ways.  In fact, professors Julie Shah and Bill Aulet are running the MIT Collaborative Intelligence Competition for MIT students – with a US$ 50,000 prize – to explore how collaborative AI and computing can be used to empower humankind.  Health will clearly be a major part of this.

Julie herself, for example, worked on robotics and how robot nurses can schedule various procedures in hospitals. There are lots of areas where we see automation and humans working together.

A big part of what we do at J-Clinic is to encourage adoption by educating medical personnel, and this is another area where we have made significant strides in our first year.  Obviously, the technology behind AI is moving fast, but health providers’ willingness to adopt these technologies is growing quickly too.

Q. How important is dialogue to this? For hospitals to work with you to identify new opportunities where AI can make a difference?

AC: It is crucial, and this brings me to the entrepreneurship aspects of J-Clinic.

Dina Katabi, Andrew and Erna Viterbi Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.  Photo credit: © Lillie Paquette
Dina Katabi, Andrew and Erna Viterbi Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Photo credit: © Lillie Paquette

Led by the Deshpande Center and the MIT Innovation Initiative, we launched the Proto Ventures Program to create new paths for Ideas to Impact.  The first Proto Venture focus area supports J-Clinic’s mission to incubate research at the intersection of computer science, big data, and the life sciences.

Rather than starting with a solution, the J-Clinic Proto Venture starts by defining unrecognized opportunities before constructing solutions within the MIT network of students, researchers, and faculty.  

This allows both MIT and J-Clinic to capture hidden value from scientific discovery, build an ecosystem, and train entrepreneurs to build ventures that address the big problems with global markets.

Q. What are the main challenges you’ve faced in J-Clinic’s first year of operation?

AC: The success of what we’re doing will largely depend on the datasets we can access, but, obviously, there’s a lot of sensitivity around hospitals releasing data.  We’re learning, we’re adapting, and we’re making great progress in building these kinds of connections, and building secure solutions.

It’s an area where I would love to see even more acceleration.  But I’m confident that once those collaborations are in place, we’re going to have access to a tremendous amount of data.  What we’re trying to do, as a clinic, is get more institutional access so we can create an even broader community.

David Sontag, Hermann L. F. von Helmholtz Career Development Professor in the Institute for Medical Engineering and Science (IMES) and Associate Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.  Photos Credit: © Lillie Paquette.
David Sontag, Hermann L. F. von Helmholtz Career Development Professor in the Institute for Medical Engineering and Science (IMES) and Associate Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Photos Credit: © Lillie Paquette.

Q. Was it difficult to identify the 18 projects you’re currently funding?

AC: We had 43 applications for our first round of funding, each of which was of a very high standard.  Many of them involved multiple faculty members, so there was quite a broad engagement of the community here at MIT.

It was a good turnout, and I believe it’s going to grow because the number of people doing healthcare is growing, and the number of people doing AI is growing, and now J-Clinic has established this community.

We’re also trying to create other collaborations within J-Clinic in terms of broader impact, and we’re in discussions with companies and foundations about how we might work with them to expand the footprint and impact of J-Clinic.

Q. Is it important to establish connections with any of the other Jameel Labs at MIT?

AC: Yes it is, and we have made good progress in this regard, particularly in education, in collaboration with the Abdul Latif Jameel World Education Lab (J-WEL).  It’s important for me that, as well as a capitalizing on the tremendous hospital network that we have in the US, J-Clinic is able to have an impact in less developed markets, such as rural communities in India, where one of our grantees is already doing some interesting work.

We also want to be able to bring essential technologies and low-cost medical devices coupled with AI, to remote parts of Africa, and other parts of the developing world – and I believe the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) could be central to what we do in this space.

Q. Finally, what should we expect for the year ahead?

Hassan Jameel (left), President of Community Jameel Saudi Arabia, and Fady Jameel, President International (far right) of Community Jameel, congratulate L. Rafael Reif, President of MIT, at the J-Clinic launch event in September 2018.
Hassan Jameel (left), President of Community Jameel Saudi Arabia, and Fady Jameel, President International (far right) of Community Jameel, congratulate L. Rafael Reif, President of MIT, at the J-Clinic launch event in September 2018.

AC:  I expect an early pay-off in terms of the research that we have begun already, with real datasets being analyzed, papers being published, and early adoption into hospitals.

I hope to see progress with the Proto Ventures program, where we identify exciting new areas to develop technology that can result in direct start-ups, and I anticipate a tremendous amount of progress on education, with lots of AI and health workshops, and bootcamps and symposia on drug discovery.

I’m also hoping to see at least one major industry collaboration, where we’re able to amplify the funding that we get to cover more areas, to get more people involved, and to strengthen the J-Clinic community even further.