IBM Will Use Watson To Battle Brain Cancer

No longer content with dominating at Jeopardy and serving up gourmet fusion dishes from food trucks, IBM's Watson will soon commit its supercomputer powers to fighting cancer. The goal: See whether Watson can use patient's genomic data to recommend treatments for glioblastoma, a highly aggressive form of brain cancer.

Image Credit: IBM Research

IBM will team up with the New York Genome Center to see whether Watson can use glioblastoma patients' genetic information to prescribe custom-tailored treatments. This "personalized" approach to medicine has been hailed as the next big step in healthcare, but making sense of genetic data – winnowing useful information from impertinent nucleic chaff – can be an overwhelming task. That's where Watson comes in.

Ars Technica's John Timmer has the details:

[New York Genome Center CEO Rober Darnell] said that the project would start with 20 to 25 patients... Samples from those patients (including both healthy and cancerous tissue) would be subjected to extensive DNA sequencing, including both the genome and the RNA transcribed from it. "What comes out is an absolute gusher of information," he said.

It should theoretically be possible to analyze that data and use it to customize a treatment that targets the specific mutations present in tumor cells. But right now, doing so requires a squad of highly trained geneticists, genomics experts, and clinicians. It's a situation that Darnell said simply can't scale to handle the patients with glioblastoma, much less other cancers.

Instead, that gusher of information is going to be pointed at Watson. John Kelly of IBM Research stepped up to describe Watson as a "cognitive system," one that "mimics the capabilities of the human mind—some, but not all [capabilities]." The capabilities it does have include ingesting large volumes of information, identifying the information that's relevant, and then learning from the results of its use. Kelley was extremely optimistic that Watson could bring new insights to cancer care. "We will have an impact on cancer and these other horrific diseases," he told the audience. "It's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when—and the when is going to be very soon."

The upshot here is that an era of genomically informed personalized medicine will likely require more than pure, number-crunching computer power to be fully realized. A system like Watson – which is not only brawny from a technical standpoint, but has also been described as "creative" – could be an invaluable tool in hastening PM's arrival.

Read more details on the IBM/NYGC partnership over at Ars.