When it seems like we’re getting worse at making breakthroughs on serious problems in the world, headlines like the ones I saw this week offer a rebuttal to cynicism. First, from Melissa Locker on Alzheimer’s:

Artificial intelligence could one day change the lives of people facing an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, according to a new study by researchers at UC, San Francisco.

“One of the difficulties with Alzheimer’s disease is that by the time all the clinical symptoms manifest and we can make a definitive diagnosis, too many neurons have died, making it essentially irreversible,” said Jae Ho Sohn, a resident in the school’s Department of Radiology and Biomedical Imaging and the study’s lead researcher, in a statement.

For the study, published in Radiology, Sohn and his team fed a common type of brain scans to a machine-learning algorithm, and it learned to diagnose early-stage Alzheimer’s disease about six years before a clinical diagnosis could be made. …

Sohn and his team trained the algorithm on PET scans from patients who were eventually diagnosed with either Alzheimer’s disease, mild cognitive impairment, or no disorder. The algorithm began to figure out how to predict Alzheimer’s disease. Eventually, it was able to correctly identify 92% of patients who developed Alzheimer’s disease in the first test set and 98% in the second test set…

Second, from Fiza Pirani on a cancer breathalyzer:

Researchers from the United Kingdom have launched a clinical trial for a breathalyzer-like cancer test that may be able to detect multiple cancers via chemical changes in the breath.

Such breath tests have been previously examined for several cancers, including lung, colon, prostate and esophageal cancers, but scientists hope this single 10-minute breath test may be able to detect several types at a time. …

The painless, non-invasive 10-minute breathalyzer test will detect amounts of volatile organic compounds — aldehydes or ketones, for example — usually produced in the body’s metabolic processes and found in exhaled breath. Because cancerous cells are known to produce different patterns (or signatures) of VOCs, researchers hope the test will be able to ascertain signature indicators of cancer. …

If the Owlstone tech can help differentiate cancer signatures and healthy ones, “the team will next see if there are differences between cancer types, or if there’s just one ‘cancer signature,’”…

Neither is in a clinical stage at this point, though the Alzheimer’s test seems nearly ready. I wish the piece had explained what next steps reman before it’s ready for public use.