IBM’s Watson, New York Genome Center partner on brain cancer treatment


Watson researchers work inside IB Thomas J. Watson Research Center, the headquarters of the company's research, in Yorktown Heights, New York, U.S., on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014. IBM’s Watson group is partnering with the New York Genome Center to devise software that could help physicians suggest more personalized treatment to patients. (Scott Eells/Bloomberg)

Could IBM’s Watson soon be a cancer specialist?

The Watson Group — IBM’s new business unit dedicated to the cognitive computing system — is partnering with the New York Genome Center, a biomedical research nonprofit, to analyze the genomes of cancer patients, the company announced Wednesday.

The two will collaborate on a computing prototype that could suggest treatment options for patients with glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer. Watson would analyze an individual patient’s genome, and compare it to large volumes of data from other patients, as well as medical literature, to recommend experimental treatments.

Since it created the Watson Group in January, IBM has been rapidly marketing the software; for instance, it recently announced it would be using Watson in parts of Africa to solve problems related to education and healthcare. This is the first time Watson has been applied to genomic research.

Ultimately, physicians and patients would make treatment decisions, but consider Watson’s input, Ajay Royyuru, director of research at IBM, said in an interview. “In the situation of actually giving care to reach patients, it’s safe to say there is never going to be a solution that replaces the expertise of physicians.”

Watson learns as it goes; as new information about the outcome of these patients’ treatments is fed back into the system, it can refine its recommendations, according to IBM.

As the cost of acquiring genomic information is rapidly decreasing, using that information to influence treatment is becoming easier, Royyuru explained.

“Genetics requires the compassion of the physician to be combined with the power of the technology, and there’s no better place to do that in patients who are desperately ill,” said Robert Darnell, president, chief executive and scientific director at the New York Genome Center. “[For glioblastoma] patients that are going to die within a year — the ethical imperative is to try to help in a way that minimizes risk.”

Mohana Ravindranath covers IT and small business for the Washington Post and its weekly Capital Business publication.
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