FILE PHOTO: Visitors use their smartphones underneath the logo of Tencent at the Global Mobile Internet Conference in Beijing May 6, 2014. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon/File Photo
Tencent was asked 2 years ago by the Chinese government to help develop AI programs for medical diagnosis © Reuters

Tencent has begun a clinical trial in London of an artificial intelligence program that aims to diagnose patients with Parkinson’s disease, in partnership with a little-known British start-up called Medopad.

The tech giant was asked two years ago by the Chinese government to lead efforts to develop AI programs for medical diagnosis.

Last year, it partnered with London-based Medopad, creating a new “lab” for medical AI. The two companies are planning to target not just Parkinson’s but also multiple sclerosis and psoriasis.

“We shared a lot of the same vision,” said Fan Wei, head of Tencent’s Medical AI Lab. “We find our path is coming closer and closer.”

The Parkinson’s clinical trial will take place at Dementech Neurosciences, a private mental health clinic in London, involve around 40 patients and be completed over the next few months, according to Medopad.

Medopad has more than 30 people involved in its partnerships with Tencent, which also has 35 people involved in the work, according to the start-up.

The expanded partnership follows Google’s acquisition in 2014 of AI research group DeepMind, which has become best known for developing AI that can analyse medical scans following intensive work with British hospitals.

Tencent has not invested in Medopad but according to Mr Fan and Medopad founder Dan Vahdat, the companies “are planning something for next year”. “I treat the Medopad office near the river like my home,” Mr Fan said. “Medopad is our [Tencent Medical AI Lab’s] main partnership and to my knowledge it is the only one,” he added.

Medopad, like DeepMind, has partnerships with several British hospitals including the Royal Free and Royal Wolverhampton, which use its technology to remotely monitor patients.

The start-up has developed a smartphone app that enables doctors to gather information about patients by setting tests they can complete on their phones and collecting data from wearables. It has also been developing algorithms that can suggest diagnoses to doctors or alert them when patients are deteriorating.

According to Chris Holmes, programme director for health at the Alan Turing Institute, which researches artificial intelligence, British start-ups have become the target for big tech companies working in digital health because of the UK’s reputation for carrying out clinical trials and the millions of patients that can be accessed through the country’s publicly funded National Health Service.

“The UK is a great place to invest in AI for health because relatively speaking we have a vibrant start-up community . . . [and] a single health provider cradle to grave,” he said. “If I was running a big AI health tech trial in China and found promising results, and my target was [patients around the world], I would look to do clinical trials in the UK.”

The Medical AI Lab was seen as a way for Tencent to refresh and refocus its experiments with healthcare, which have remained relatively small so far compared with the scale of its other businesses. Its flagship health project, a platform called Miying that uses AI to help doctors diagnose chronic diseases, was unveiled two years ago.

“Tencent has multiple initiatives to develop smart healthcare solutions by combining our technological capabilities, social platforms and enterprise services in order to better connect providers of medical services with users,” it said. “We began investing in AI technologies months before we announced our progress in [Miying’s] medical imaging in August 2017.”

Mr Fan added that China’s AI plan was “unrelated and not part of” Tencent’s relationship with Medopad.

Medopad was founded in 2011 by Mr Vahdat, a bioengineering graduate who dropped out of a PhD at Johns Hopkins University to become an entrepreneur. The start-up was valued at $100m in a funding round last February led by Hong Kong-based conglomerate NWS Holdings and has previously struck partnerships with companies including Apple and China Resources.

Additional reporting by Louise Lucas in Hong Kong

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