Memorial Sloan Kettering's Mark Kris on Partnership with IBM Watson

Pictured: Mark Kris

Medical oncologist Mark Kris

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?

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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.

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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.

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Commenting is disabled for this blog post.

An IBMer is hoping to have Sloane Kettering's use of Watson harness the best treatment modalities for a patient with rare adenoidcystic carcinoma where expertise is difficult to locate. Patient has diagnosis of br ca but seeks comprehensive overview. It would be an honor to do so and showcase S-K and Watson. Thank you.

This sounds fantastic, but how will other physicians and researchers gain access to it? It sounds like the technology will be bundled into it commercial products? Is there a possibility of building an Open Watson system that would be more accessible for researchers to both use and participate in training?

Thank you for your comment. Physicians will have access to this tool through a platform brought to market by WellPoint later this year.

Dr. Kris got the treatment right for me without Watson. Being a patient with an unknown primary I was lucky Dr. Kris was my doctor. I'd like to see Watson try to beat Dr. Kris at diagnosing and determining treatment. Not sure who would win. Progress is good because if things didn't go well having a Watson would give good alternative advice and ideas.

Dr. Kris saved my life more than 12 years ago by correctly diagnosing and treating the primary (which was inoperable and wrapped around my aorta) and and destroying a liver metastasis in the process. When my treatment was over the cancer was in total necrosis. If Watson could effectively clone Dr. Kris and help more doctors successfully diagnose and treat patients the Watson Thoracic Oncology program should be named "Kris".

Are there any plans to make this expert-system available to patients in emerging markets ? Is there a point person at Sloan-Kettering or IBM that would be interested in exploring the possibility ? It is an opportunity to do an enormous amount of good.

Dear Tatiana, we anticipate that IBM Watson Oncology will be broadly available around the world. Memorial Sloan Kettering’s role remains focused on “teaching” Watson Oncology about the latest cancer treatments. IBM will lead the effort to help oncologists anywhere access this tool. Thank you for your comment!

My mom has sc lung cancer, for 10 yrs, being cared for at Norwalk hospital cancer center, We have just now gotten her to agree to seek help at sloane Kettering. Being a Watson (IBM Family) I am praying to make appt w/you & have access to the Watson computer. My mothers Dr, will be avail in a week to release records to your amazing facility! I will be calling to set up new patient intake Thursday the 17th. Looking forward to start the process & treatment

Thank you for your comment and best wishes to your mother.

The Watson MSK initiative is absolutely amazing! I recently saw how Gachon University is adopting it in Korea (…)

I have an interest in the Watson MSK work for a multitude of reasons, most importantly my husband is a patient at MSK (PCNSL, with Dr. Kaley) and secondly I am an engineer and work in big data. I realize the initiative is now 3-4 years old now. I was wondering, I see lung, breast and colorectal and then next gastric. Are you going to teach brain cancers as well? Any time soon? If so, who is the main doctor working it?
Thank you!

Dear Emily, we are sorry to hear about your husband’s diagnosis. Unfortunately, we cannot say at this point if or when brain cancer will be part of our development plan, but we are continuing to build support for additional cancer coverage as part of our partnership with IBM Watson.

We wish your husband all our best for his continued care at MSK. Thank you for reaching out to us.

When will Watson be involved in prostate cancer?

Dear Lise, we are continuing to build support for additional cancer coverage as part of our partnership with IBM Watson. Prostate cancer is among the diseases being considered but we cannot confirm when support will be available within Watson for Oncology trained by Memorial Sloan Kettering. Thank you for reaching out to us.

Does Watson have the ability to assist with pediatric oncology hepatoblastoma cases?

Dear Robert, at present, Watson for Oncology trained by Memorial Sloan Kettering isn’t ready to evaluate cases for patients with pediatric cancers. The physician team at Memorial Sloan Kettering continues to work with IBM Watson to develop support for additional cancers. Our physician experts are Watson’s teachers, so even if we haven’t trained Watson for Oncology on a given cancer, patients are welcome to schedule appointments for pediatric patients, including for second opinions, at MSK through our Department of Pediatrics at 212-639-5954. For more information about pediatric cancer care at MSK, please visit Thank you for reaching out to us.