As a longtime fan of the TV game show, Jeopardy!, I was fascinated when I watched an IBM supercomputer named Watson beat all-time Jeopardy! champions, two years ago this month.
I was particularly interested because my friend and colleague Larry Norton, Deputy Physician-in-Chief for Breast Cancer Programs, had previously alerted me to the fact that systems like IBM Watson could be harnessed to improve cancer care and research.
Combining the abilities to process massive amounts of data and use natural language processing could not only accomplish amazing things like winning Jeopardy!, it could also revolutionize care and research, accelerating progress for people with cancers.
A year after beginning work on this project, I remain as excited today as I was on day one.
Training Watson to Help Assist Medical Professionals
Over the past year, we at Memorial Sloan Kettering have worked with an IBM team to train Watson to help assist medical professionals in choosing treatments for lung and breast cancers.
We are sharing our knowledge and expertise in oncology, starting with hundreds of lung cancers, to help Watson learn everything it can about cancer care and how Memorial Sloan Kettering’s experts use medical information and their experience in personalized cancer treatments.
Cancers are illnesses that continually humble doctors. A major leap forward in understanding these diseases over the past 40 years has been realizing how complex they are.
You may notice that I have been using the word cancers instead of cancer. I do it deliberately, as a reflection of what we have learned.
Doctors treating these illnesses now know how different they are from person to person. We need better ways to help us understand the complexity and variation of these diseases to improve care and research. Textbook and guideline-based treatments are a good place to start, but they can’t address the many biological and other factors affecting the course and aggressiveness of cancers.
Current guidelines aren’t granular enough to determine which treatments are best matched to the person with the illness. The guideline-recommended treatment may be chemotherapy, but how do you pick among ten or more possible chemo options? How do you choose the dosage? Which treatment frequency would work best?
The Power of Watson Technology
Oncologists learn ways to make these choices from their experience treating individual patients. That kind of wisdom is what the Memorial Sloan Kettering team is adding to IBM Watson. Our hope is to share our experience and knowledge, and, enabled by Watson technology, help physicians around the world understand and mine the subtleties of each person’s illness.
We believe this strategy can take us one step closer to the goal of personalized care for every person facing cancer treatment.
The power of the technology is that it has the ability to take the information about a specific patient and match it to a huge knowledge base and history of treatment for similar patients. This process can help medical professionals gain important insights so that they can make more-informed decisions, evidence-based decisions, about which treatment to follow.
Watson’s ability to mine massive quantities of data means that it can also keep up – at record speeds – with the latest medical breakthroughs reported in scientific journals and meetings.
A Milestone for Watson and Cancer Care
Today, I joined IBM and many other healthcare leaders in New York City to mark a milestone on the path to bringing the power of Watson to oncology care.
In collaboration with IBM, we unveiled the first commercially developed Watson-based cognitive computing system that is being taught by Memorial Sloan Kettering experts. We believe innovations like this one will help transform the quality and speed of care for patients and enhance research to lead to more cures.
One of the big goals for Memorial Sloan Kettering and IBM Watson is to improve the quality of care delivered to people with cancers, and for Watson to learn with every encounter, continually getting smarter.
Watson can also help to reduce the time and documentation required to get an approval to start treatment. It is an interesting aspect of the project that using a machine can actually allow doctors and nurses more time to focus on patients, rather than paperwork.
I’m sure that applying the Watson technology to oncology has the power to transform cancer care so that our healthcare providers can dedicate more time toward delivering the best possible care.