IBM Ramps Up Its Watson Cancer Therapy Tools

10-17-2013 8-01-10 PM

IBM announces that 14 North American cancer centers will deploy its Watson-powered Cancer clinical decision support engine to help oncologists analyze the genetic makeup of advanced tumors and then create personalized treatment plans for patients. The announcement marks a major step for Watson, which, until now, has been the subject of countless promising projects in healthcare but has not yet delivered a marketable finished product for IBM.

IBM began working with oncology centers in February 2013 when it was implemented at the Maine Center for Cancer Medicine and WestMed in Westchester County, NY. In preparation for its work there, Watson was packed with 600,000 pieces of medical evidence, 1.5 million patient records, 2 million pages of texts from medical journals, and 1,500 lung-cancer cases. Using that library, clinicians and engineers partnered to teach Watson how to analyze patient cases and recommend oncology treatments based on clinical trial findings and emerging best practices. In this early-stage project, IBM focused solely on lung cancer cases.

Later in 2013, MD Anderson Cancer Center announced a new collaborative project with IBM called the Oncology Expert Advisor project in which Watson would be given access to MD Anderson’s massive cancer datasets to help create treatment plans for a broader array of cancers. For this project, Watson used its natural language processing capabilities to scour unstructured patient records, as well as case studies, and medical journals to create a list of treatment plans for a patient, sorted based on which plans had the highest likelihood of producing positive outcomes. For this project, Watson was not restricted to known treatment pathways for specific cancers, and researchers hoped that by giving it access to its full datasets, that it might begin recommending novel approaches to cancer treatment based purely on data analysis. Lynda Chin, MD, scientific director of the Institute for Applied Cancer Science at MD Anderson, explains, “One unique aspect of the MD Anderson Oncology Expert Advisor is that it will not solely rely on established cancer care pathways to recommend appropriate treatment options. The system was built with the understanding that what we know today will not be enough for many patients.”

In 2014, Watson’s capabilities were expanded further through a project with the New York Genome Center, where Watson was tasked with analyzing the genetic makeup of tumors in hopes that the information would lead to the discovery of new treatments that could target those specific mutations. With a growing body of evidence linking harmful genome mutations with specific kinds of cancers, oncologists have started investigating whether mutation-specific treatment plans may offer improved outcomes to patients with certain kinds of cancers. Watson has been working to support this research and in the process has been programmed to research treatment options based not only on best practices, but also on outcomes analysis of other patients with tumors that have similar a genetic profile.

Now, with the ability to review a patient’s case, analyze the genetic makeup of a tumor, identify and review case studies relevant to the patient, and create treatment plans for a wide variety of cancers, Watson has matured considerably in the last two years and is in a position to support a genuine need in cancer care. Norman Sharpless, MD, director of the University of North Carolina Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, which just signed on to implement Watson’s Cancer treatment platform, explains, "Determining the right drug combination for an advanced cancer patient is alarmingly difficult, requiring a complex analysis of different sources of big data that integrates rapidly emerging clinical trial information with personalized gene sequencing." With Watson, oncologists will be presented with a list of drugs most likely to be effective on the patient’s cancer along with the case studies that support those conclusions, cutting weeks of research out of the care delivery process and pushing personalized cancer care further along.

Many of its early research partners have returned as customers, including the New York Genome Center in New York City. The other new customers are:

  • Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago
  • BC Cancer Agency in Vancouver, British Columbia
  • City of Hope in Los Angeles
  • Cleveland Clinic in Ohio
  • Duke Cancer Institute in Durham, North Carolina
  • Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center in Omaha, Nebraska
  • McDonnell Genome Institute at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri
  • Sanford Health in Sioux Falls, South Dakota
  • University of Kansas Cancer Center in Kansas City
  • University of North Carolina Lineberger Cancer Center in Chapel Hill
  • University of Southern California Center for Applied Molecular Medicine in Los Angeles
  • University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle
  • Yale Cancer Center in New Haven, Connecticut

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