Prevent and treat cancer through nutrition? There is an app for that

He is 25 years old, started by studying Biomedical Engineering, in Lisbon, and did his research master’s (MRes Biomedical Research) with data science at Imperial College, London. Luís Rita walks around the world for having created an app with dietary recommendations for cancer patients. The idea of ​​“converting atoms into bits” and contributing to treat and prevent these health problems could have been just another academic project in computational medicine. The work, entitled “Machine Learning for Building a Food Recommendation System”, Was awarded in the Digital category by the Top Talents Under 25 (international award aimed at young people of generation Z, promoted by a German organization and similar to that of Forbes, for under-30s) and changed his life. First, because he was the only Portuguese, among 721 candidates from 45 countries, to achieve this. Then, because the prototype, still in the development stage, allows you to make a diet plan adapted to the needs of people with cancer, taking into account the various dietary traditions.

Luís Rita, the young Portuguese man from Imperial College London whose academic project was awarded by Top Talents Under 25 in the Digital category

“I intended to put Artificial Intelligence at the service of sick people, so that they can choose the components of the diet ingredients according to their tastes”, explains the young university student. Now that he has started his PhD, Luís Rita intends to go further and “extend the concept to other chronic diseases”.

How it works?

Although it is only available for download on the programmers’ social network, “as it is not yet a marketable product”, the app is based on a database from which it is possible to try combinations of dishes and calculate the most favorable one, depending on the type (European, American, etc.): “The user places a photo of the dish he wants to eat in the app and receives general suggestions for combinations of ingredients with a similar flavor.” Examples of happy combinations, or foods with anti-cancer properties: garlic, chicken and onion; tomato, basil and celery; and honey and orange.

To get here, it was necessary to build a database with more than one million recipes, establish correlations between anti-cancer ingredients and molecules and the health effects of food combinations. This work had the collaboration of supervisor Kirill Veselkov, from the Department of Surgery and Cancer at Imperial College, who uses artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. Hence the initiative of a cookbook with superfoods.

From the laboratory to everyday life

How do you explain the impact of this concept, which combines data science with medicine? “The app FoodReco showed that the diet with the highest number of anti-cancer molecules is the Mediterranean ”, points out Luís Rita. The pandemic, which brought the issue of immune strengthening to the table, proved to be an opportunity to give visibility to the winning project. “Making the app marketable will allow people to act for themselves and give the industry, through partnerships, the power to provide healthier menus.” This is a multidisciplinary project, involving nutritionists, doctors and computer specialists and not limited to the United Kingdom: “The team also has researchers from American universities and the goal is to achieve results with a global reach.”

If you asked the little boy what he wanted to be when he was big, it might never occur to him to say he was interested in data science and health. “I always wanted to be a footballer, like the boys my age”, says the doctoral student at Imperial College. Immersion in the academic universe changed his mind: the ball became a hobby and his food became more based on vegetables and fruits. “When I chose a project like this, I wanted to be the first to introduce it into my life; otherwise, why should I expect others to do so? ”

Eating and cycling with science

The changes in Luís Rita’s lifestyle do not stop there and seem to combine well with his academic tours. At the end of the conversation, he couldn’t resist talking about the second project, “Becoming A Better Cyclist ”, also awarded at Top Talents Under 25. “I go by bike to the university, which means traveling in polluted areas of the city”, he begins by saying. The new coronavirus, which brought the fear of riding public transport, and the expansion of the cycle path network leveraged by the need to “reduce pollution and minimize the negative health consequences”, led him to study the circuits and times spent cycling In London.

Luís Rita's project image, Become a Better Cyclist
“Become a Better Cyclist with Deep Learning”: a project to identify risk factors for cyclists in London

In five months, the problem was solved: “I used half a million Google Street View images and created a metric that lists risk factors (presence of houses, trucks, cyclists), gathered accident and mortality statistics and calculated the security level. ” That said, it seems easy, almost like a cooking recipe. And to some extent, perhaps it is, at least for those who understand algorithms and have a talented mind. “The model can be applied to other cities”, he concludes, with enthusiasm in his voice. Guess what he did next: he changed his usual routes, with health gains. In the meantime, academic and municipal contacts are already underway, with the intention of improving the algorithm, counting, for that, with the feedback of the largest possible number of cyclists.

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