New group leader Jonas Teuwen uses algorithms in fight against cancer

29 Oct 2020 17:28

Artificial intelligence can benefit cancer research, diagnostics, and treatment. Jonas Teuwen researches ways in which algorithms can support the field. As of this month, he leads his own research group at the Netherlands Cancer Institute. 


Banks and insurance companies are often first in line to try and employ recently graduated mathematicians. Jonas Teuwen ignored them. After completing his PhD thesis in math and physics, he applied for a position as a postdoctoral fellow at the Netherlands Cancer Institute Radiotherapy Department. “The vacancy jumped out at me, although I barely understood it. I had never seen a CT scan. But I studied physics, so I thought I would quickly pick up the necessary parts about radiation once I got started.”

And he did. Four years later, he now leads his own research group consisting of 5 people, and is in charge of hiring 5 more. His new lab closely collaborates with scientists at the University of Amsterdam and is part of the Innovation Center for Artificial Intelligence (ICAI).

Seeing things that people can’t...

Teuwen and his group develop algorithms that can aid early detection and treatment of cancer. “Consider breast cancer. A mammogram can be hard to read. Only highly specialized radiologists are able to, although even they may overlook the smaller abnormalities. Radiologists may have trouble detecting whether a tumor is aggressive and dangerous, or if it has a slower growth pattern and therefore won’t require immediate surgery. We already have algorithms that can see things that people can’t. These algorithms can support radiologists when deciding whether someone will need to have surgery, or if increased screenings could suffice.”

An algorithm as a second pair of eyes

Teuwens algorithms are image guided. “They usually analyze CT or MRI scans, or a combination thereof.” They can evaluate static images such as mammograms, but can also supply real time information. Teuwen: “Imagine wanting to irradiate a tumor in the lungs. Breathing causes the tumor to shift, which means that the radiation will have to be delivered to a larger area, affecting healthy tissue. Having the support of an algorithm as a second pair of eyes that can control the radiation equipment may avoid damaging the healthy tissue.”

Patiënt impact

Teuwen’s strongest point as an algorithm expert is his collaboration with clinicians. “Together we can find solutions for problems that significantly impact cancer patients. I love that, I enjoy working with people with very different backgrounds.” As a reply to the unavoidable question – when does he suspect to have created a groundbreaking new algorithm - he says: “That’s exactly why I came to the Netherlands Cancer Institute. I can dedicate myself to exploratory research in order to answer an important oncological question. I found the freedom to work towards becoming the world’s expert in something, without having to announce constant milestones, like people working for businesses. I’ll hit road blocks, but what they will be, I don’t know…”

Banks and insurance companies

It is clear that Teuwen won’t let anything get in his way. He studied math because he felt like he didn’t understand it. “I wanted to get better at math because it’s such a fundamental aspect of science.” Then he applied for a vacancy he didn’t understand, with great success. Banks and insurance companies won’t get a hold on this employee.