When prompted to name popular Jeopardy! champions, most people can quickly recall Ken Jennings, who won 74 consecutive games, or Brad Rutter, the show’s all-time money winner. We can’t let them forget Watson, however — the IBM computer that beat them all.
Over the course of 3 episodes in 2011, Watson ultimately won $77,147, while Jennings walked away with $24,000 and Rutter with $21,600. Watson’s ability to crush the competition was amazing to behold, but little did we know, we were also watching the future of cancer research, treatment, and prevention unfolding right before our eyes.
Now, IBM has an entire initiative dedicated to fighting cancer, a branch of their business that’s been dubbed Watson Oncology. The technology giant has partnered with Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center to train Watson Oncology to interpret the clinical information of cancer patients, and to then identify and recommend effective treatment options.
To Understand All of This, One Must First Ask: What Is Watson?
The whole idea of a computer diagnosing and treating cancer sounds like the stuff science fiction movies are made of, but the concept is real — and it’s happening right now. But what is Watson? We’ll start with IBM’s succinct explanation:
“IBM Watson is a technology platform that uses natural language processing and machine learning to reveal insights from large amounts of unstructured data.”
Watson is a cognitive computing system, meaning it has the capability to learn and continuously evolve. To learn a new subject, any PDFs, websites, Word documents, or other related materials are loaded into Watson, along with question/answer pairs. If new information is published on that specific subject, Watson is automatically updated.
Once Watson begins to learn about a subject, it can start answering questions. Watson does this by:
- Searching millions of documents to find possible answers
- Collecting evidence and using a scoring algorithm to rate the quality of the evidence
- Ranking possible answers based on the quality score of the evidence found
Watson’s capabilities are being harnessed for all types of purposes and industries, but a primary focus is oncology.
The Future of Cancer Treatment: Watson Oncology
There’s a lot for Watson to learn when it comes to cancer research, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention, so IBM turned to some of the nation’s best and brightest physicians and analysts at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center for help.
The specialists at Memorial Sloan Kettering treat more than 30,000 cancer patients every year. By sharing their expertise with Watson, these professionals are not just “playing around” on a computer — they are contributing to a much bigger initiative. On their website, Memorial Sloan Kettering explains:
“As Watson Oncology’s teacher, we are advancing our mission by creating a powerful resource that will help inform treatment decisions for those who may not have access to a specialty center like MSK. With Watson Oncology, we believe we can decrease the amount of time it takes for the latest research and evidence to influence clinical practice across the broader oncology community, help physicians synthesize available information, and improve patient care.”
Needless to say, this is a huge deal.
Cancer research and findings are advancing very quickly. While that is great news, it is also impossible for any 1 human to keep up with everything. Watson, however, is built to keep up with it — and then use that knowledge to assist trained oncologists around the world. Watson Oncology’s purpose is not to replace flesh-and-blood oncologists, but rather, act as a cognitive assistant.
One IBM employee explained it well in a company video about Watson: It’s “scaling the greatest minds to every mind.”
How Watson Oncology Can Help Oncologists
At this point, Watson Oncology has been trained to extract and interpret physician notes, lab results, and clinical research. At the beginning, the focus was just on breast and lung cancers. However, that work has now expanded to other types of cancer including prostate, bladder, ovarian, cervical, pancreas, kidney, liver, uterine, melanoma, and various lymphomas.
The possibilities for Watson Oncology seem truly endless, but right now, IBM and Memorial Sloan Kettering see it accomplishing certain tasks:
- Supporting physicians so they can quickly make more specific, personalized treatment decisions based on the most recent research.
- Prompting physicians if missing information is needed to create an initial set of treatment options.
- Displaying treatment choices for physicians, ranked by degree of confidence and including supporting evidence.
- Allowing physicians to match patients to appropriate clinical trials.
- Decreasing how long it takes for the latest research to find its way into clinical practice.
- Reducing variation in cancer care.
In September 2014, Watson began a fellowship in leukemia at Houston’s MD Anderson. In May 2015, it began collaborating with 14 leading cancer institutes to assist clinicians in identifying cancer-causing mutations. By getting Watson Oncology out into the trenches, the super computer is learning more and more every second. And in treating cancer, every second counts.
Part of the Precision Medicine Initiative
While the United States is home to some of the best medical care in the world, there is still a lot of trial-and-error involved in the field of medicine. Yes, there are best practices in place and certain treatments that may have better track records than others, but at the end of the day, some treatments fail and we just don’t know why.
This is why precision medicine is a big topic of conversation as of late — and Watson Oncology is a key player.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), “precision medicine is an emerging approach for disease prevention and treatment that takes into account people’s individual variations in genes, environment, and lifestyle.” Watson Oncology, with its ability to provide personalized treatment options, is a big part of this approach.
In January 2015, during his State of the Union address, President Obama announced the Precision Medicine Initiative®. He called for $215 Million in fiscal year 2016 to be set aside to support the Initiative, with $130 Million going to the NIH to build a national, large-scale research group, and $70 Million to the National Cancer Institute to lead efforts in cancer genomics. The goal of the Precision Medicine Initiative is to generate the scientific evidence that is needed to move precision medicine into clinical practice.
The Initiative has longer-term goals that would impact all types of conditions and treatments, but its near-term goals revolve around the fight against cancer. The hope is that the Initiative results in:
- Innovative clinical trials of targeted drugs for both adult and pediatric cancers
- Use of combination therapies
- Knowledge to overcome drug resistance
If precision medicine advances in the way most people anticipate, we will hopefully see most cancers treated far more effectively. Instead of enduring painful courses of chemotherapy, radiation, and drugs that don’t work, cancer patients will receive effective treatment plans right after being diagnosed that are tailored to their genetics and unique tumors. More lives will be saved — or vastly extended — and the ridiculous cost of fighting cancer will drop exponentially if we get treatments right the first time around.
Precision medicine, with the help of Watson Oncology, has the potential to completely change the way cancer is treated — and remove the terrifying grip this awful disease has on the world’s population.
A Positive Outlook for Cancer Patients Everywhere
Today, nearly everyone you meet has been touched by cancer in some way. Many people have lost loved ones they cared about deeply. However, with the technological advances surrounding Watson Oncology and precision medicine, there will hopefully be a day in the not-so-distant future where receiving a cancer diagnosis doesn’t have to feel like the ultimate blow. By creating targeted, personalized treatment plans, cancer will become more of a slight inconvenience rather than a possible death sentence.