Cleveland Clinic uses IBM's Watson in the cloud to fight cancer

Researchers will use cognitive computing to study the human genome to find personalized cancer treatments

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Credit: Kirsty Pargeter

The Cleveland Clinic is beginning a pilot program with a cloud service based on IBM's Watson cognitive computing technology to aid its research into new cancer treatments.

IBM Chairman and CEO Ginni Rometty, speaking Wednesday at the 2014 Cleveland Clinic Medical Innovation Summit, said researchers at the clinic will use IBM's Watson Genomics Analytics to advance the use of personalized medicine based on the patient's genetic makeup.

With better analytics and cloud access to information, scientists and oncologists are hoping to be able to deliver personalized medicine to patients. By cutting through the daunting big data challenge of genomics, researchers can uncover new individualized cancer treatments based on patients' specific DNA mutations.

"The potential for leveraging the capabilities of Watson's cognitive computing engine in personalized medicine could not be timelier," said Dr. Charis Eng, chairwoman and founding director of the Lerner Research Institute's Genomic Medicine Institute. "Clinicians will benefit from the knowledge and insight provided by Watson in the care of their patients," Eng said.

Doctors don't have the time or the tools to explore specific treatment options for individual patients based on their type of cancer along with their unique DNA, according to the clinic. They're hoping to solve that problem with the Watson-based analytics service.

Wednesday's announcement comes after doctors at the New York Genome Center announced in March that they were using the Watson supercomputer to conduct research on patients' mutations that may be referenced in genomic databases and in medical literature.

Researchers then could take that information and present it to the patient's physician.

Watson gained mainstream fame early in 2011 when the supercomputer went up against Jeopardy champions in a special episode of the question-and-answer game show.

At the time, Watson was touted as one of the biggest computing advancements in several decades.

What makes it stand apart from other supercomputers is not just its ability to make calculations. Watson was designed to essentially converse with humans, answering questions and beginning to understand colloquialisms and jokes.

In August, IBM announced it was making its artificially intelligent computer system available to researchers as a cloud service.

Rob Merkel, vice president of IBM's Watson Healthcare Group, said at the time that the Watson technology is a perfect fit for scientific research because of its natural language ability.

For example, a scientist could have Watson digitally ingest as much information - say, research papers, proprietary information and licensed information -- about a topic as possible. The researcher could then ask Watson specific questions about findings in DNA research or to list medications with certain characteristics.

At the Cleveland Clinic, researchers are trying to correlate data from genome sequencing with studies and information in reams of medical journals, reports and clinical records.

IBM's application uses a combination of Watson's cognitive system, deep computational biology models and IBM's public cloud infrastructure, SoftLayer. Watson is designed to continually "learn" as it encounters new patient scenarios, medical studies, and genomic and drug information.

"Using Watson's cognitive computing capabilities, Cleveland Clinic aims to offer cutting-edge care to millions of patients," said Merkel said Wednesday. "We're excited by our continued partnership with Cleveland Clinic. Together we aim to advance a new era of cognitive computing that will aide in the acceleration of new discoveries and bring forward new breakthroughs in personalized medicine."

According to IBM, the Watson-based cloud service is able to focus on identifying patterns in genome sequencing and link that information to medical data to reveal insights that might help oncologists develop treatments that will work specifically with a patient's DNA.

This new cloud-based research pilot is the next step in an ongoing program IBM has with the Cleveland Clinic to advance the use of big data in healthcare.

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