IBM's Watson expands cancer care resume

Watson, Memorial Sloan-Kettering join to bring evidence-based medicine to oncology

IBM's Watson supercomputer is gathering a working resume that any oncologist would envy. In its latest project, the supercomputer will be used to to assist Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center physicians in diagnosing and treating patients.

That project, announced yesterday , follows by a few months an IBM and WellPoint announcement that they are jointly developing applications that will essentially turn Watson into an adviser for oncologists at Cedars-Sinai's Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute in Los Angeles.

IBM said last year that healthcare would be the first commercial application for the supercomputer, which defeated two human champions on the popular television game show Jeopardy! in early 2011.

At Memorial Sloan-Kettering, Watson will be used as a decision support tool for clinicians to improve their access to current, comprehensive cancer data and practices.

Watson will combine its grid-computing power and its natural language processing ability with MSKCC's clinical knowledge, molecular and genomic data and vast repository of cancer case histories to create an outcome and evidence-based decision support system.

"Memorial Sloan-Kettering's evidence-based clinical approach, scientific acumen, and vast database make it the ideal partner in this ambitious project," Dr. Martin Kohn, chief medical scientist for IBM, said in a statement.

"Cancer care is profoundly complex with continuous clinical and scientific advancements to consider. This field of clinical information, given its importance on both a human and economic level, is exactly the type of grand challenge IBM Watson can help address," Kohn added.

Watson can interpret queries in natural language and use statistical analysis, advanced analytics and an array of processors to search millions of pages in seconds and then deliver evidence-based, statistically-ranked responses.

Just as at Cedars-Sinai, Memorial Sloan-Kettering's oncologists will assist in developing IBM Watson to use a patient's medical information and synthesize a vast array of continuously updated and vetted treatment guidelines, published research, and insights gleaned from the deep experience of cancer center clinicians to provide an individualized recommendation to physicians.

The tool will also compile a detailed record of the data and evidence used to reach the recommendations.

"The combination of transformational technologies found in Watson with our cancer analytics and decision-making process has the potential to revolutionize the accessibility of information for the treatment of cancer in communities across the country and around the world," MSKCC CEO Craig Thompson said in a statement. "

IBM and MSKCC oncologists are already beginning development of the first applications to Watson, which include lung, breast and prostate cancers.

The objective is to begin piloting the applications for a select group of oncologists in late 2012, with wider distribution planned for late 2013.

Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian , or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed . His e-mail address is .

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Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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