Called CRAB, the system is able to trawl through millions of peer-reviewed articles for clues to the causes of tumours. Already, it has uncovered a potential reason why some chemicals induce pancreatic cancer only in men.
CRAB is the latest implementation of a rapidly-emerging form of artificial intelligence called natural language processing, which is also used in the Siri personal assistant software in the iPhone 4S. It allows computers to read texts and derive meaning from them, despite their complexity and abiguities, as humans do.
The system will first be used to assess the risk that new chemicals could cause cancer.
“The first stage of any risk assessment is a literature review. It’s a major bottleneck," said Dr Anna Korhonen of the University of Cambridge, who led the development of CRAB.
"There could be tens of thousands of articles for a single chemical. Performed manually, it’s expensive and, because of the rising number of publications, it’s becoming too challenging to manage," she said.