IBM’s “Watson” Supercomputer Has a New Program: Fighting Cancer.
After winning Jeopardy and writing a cook book, one of the world’s most advanced computers gets serious
image via (cc) flickr user atomictaco
In addition to being one of the most advanced computers ever created, IBM’s Watson is also one of the most accomplished. After its much-publicized Jeopardy win in 2011, Watson has gone on to try its hand at the culinary arts, and has even dipped its digital toe into the waters of higher education. But now the super-productive supercomputer is preparing to use its unprecedented processing power for a much more serious project: Fighting cancer.
Starting later this year, Watson’s data-crunching prowess will reportedly be put to use at fourteen cancer treatment facilities across the United States. The computer will be tasked with identifying the genetic specifics of a person’s particular form of cancer, and then scanning the impossibly vast array of medical files, drug trials, and research material necessary to match the patient with the best form of treatment.
Oncology is the first specialty where matching therapy to DNA has improved outcomes for some patients, inspiring the "precision medicine initiative" President Barack Obama announced in January.
But it can take weeks to identify drugs targeting cancer-causing mutations. Watson can do it in minutes and has in its database the findings of scientific papers and clinical trials on particular cancers and potential therapies.
In some instances, standard treatment practices such as radiation or chemotherapy will still be the patient’s eventual prescription. For all his computational power, Watson’s diagnostic skill is only as good as the data available to him, meaning it can’t necessarily identify every single form of cancer uploaded into his system. Still, in cases where Watson is able make a match between a patient’s particular cancerous mutation and an appropriate course of action, it’s able to do so faster, more accurately, and more efficiently than anything—or anyone—else.
The participating treatment centers will reportedly pay a subscription fee to IBM in exchange for Watson’s services. IBM piloted Watson’s foray into oncology at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center last year.
As explained in the video above by Dr. Larry Norton, MSKCC’s deputy physician-in-chief for breast cancer programs, “I like to say there’s two parts of any medical problem: There’s the biology, and there’s everything else. What Watson’s going to be able to give us is the ‘everything else’ part, and that’s going to make a total comprehensive package that’s going to improve results worldwide.”