Cognitive Computing for Cancer: IBM's Watson Will Do Cancer Research


Cognitive Computing for Cancer

IBM's Watson Will Do Cancer Research

The New York Genome Center (NYGC) is partnering with IBM to analyze cancer-related genotypic and phenotypic data. The two companies have worked together since 2014 when they investigated glioblastomas, an aggressive brain tumor that kills more than 13,000 people per year. Now, as Nick Paul Taylor and Amirah Al Idris write in Fierce Biotech, they will be focusing on cancer as a whole.

In the original glioblastoma study, sequencing of the entire genome of the tumor produced much more data about it than the established technique of “targeted panel” that only analyzes some genes. The problem is that the mass of data must then be analyzed be researchers. In this case, it took some 160 hours of work. The Watson computing system did it in 10 minutes. Even with limited data, the researchers believe that it is a critical step in precision medicine for cancer.

Vanessa Michelini of IBM Watson Health says, “This study documents the strong potential of Watson for genomics to help clinicians scale precision oncology more broadly. Clinicians and research leaders in cancer genomics are making tremendous progress towards bringing precision medicine to cancer patients, but genomic data interpretation is a significant obstacle and that’s where Watson can help.”

The “cognitive computing system” known as Watson, which millions of viewers saw at work on the television game show Jeopardy, will be analyzing data from 200 cancer patients, with the hope of lessening the time and labor needed to find the best potential treatment for a given patient.

Robert Darnell, CEO of New York Genome Center, says, “Our goal is to take that massive data and turn it into information that can be used for a patient who is waiting at the bedside. Our vision is to create a comprehensive cancer data repository that combines whole genome, exome, targeted panel and phenotypic data in an open platform that will empower researchers and clinicians.”

He added, “Since the human genome was first mapped more than a decade ago, we’ve made tremendous progress in understanding the genetic drivers of disease. The real challenge has been making sense of massive quantities of genetic data and translating research findings into better treatments and outcomes for patient. Applying the cognitive computing power of Watson is going to revolutionize genomics and accelerate the opportunity to target personalized care for deadly diseases like cancer.”

NYGC will do the gene sequencing using its Illumina Hi Seq XT10 system while IBM analyzes the data using Watson. IBM is entering the health field in a big way, forming alliances with Apple, Johnson & Johnson and CVS Health and investing a staggering $4 billion in acquisitions.

The goal of making these types of intelligent systems commercially available in medicine is to give many more patients the chance to have personalized medicine in the form of treatments that are customized for the DNA of a specific disease. The system can adapt to new patient circumstances and “learn” from data obtained from medical research, journal articles and clinical studies.


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