Memorial Sloan Kettering Trains IBM Watson to Help Doctors Make Better Cancer Treatment Choices

A team of physicians and analysts at Memorial Sloan Kettering has been “training” IBM Watson for more than a year to develop a tool that can help medical professionals choose the best treatment plans for individual cancer patients.
Video Details

When you watch this year’s Masters golf tournament, you may notice a Memorial Sloan Kettering oncologist featured in a new IBM TV spot, which IBM’s Jon Iwata discusses here.  As you already may have seen on CBS This Morning or read in recent articles, such as Mark G. Kris’s piece in The Atlantic, some of our oncologists have spent the last year training IBM’s Watson to help personalize cancer care.

What Is Watson?

For those who don’t know, IBM Watson™ (made famous by its Jeopardy! win) is a powerful cognitive technology developed by IBM that processes information more like a human than a computer, by understanding natural language, generating hypotheses based on evidence, and learning as it goes. But beyond Jeopardy!, what if Watson’s power could also be used for the greater good, to help medical professionals choose treatment options for cancers?

Cancer is not one disease but a cluster of diseases with hundreds of subtypes, each with a different genetic fingerprint. Although significant discoveries have delivered extraordinary insights into cancer biology and strategies for targeting specific molecular alterations in tumors, these advances have also increased the complexity of treating individual patients. Vast amounts of rapidly changing information means it can take years for the latest developments in oncology to become standard care across all communities.

Back to top

Why Watson and Memorial Sloan Kettering

When utilizing Memorial Sloan Kettering’s unmatched breadth and depth of experience, gained from treating more than 30,000 patients with cancer every year, Watson will take information about a specific patient and match it to a huge knowledge base incorporating published literature and the treatment history of similar patients. 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 medical meetings. Additionally, because it utilizes cognitive computing, Watson continually “learns,” thereby improving its accuracy and confidence in the treatment options it suggests.

Memorial Sloan Kettering clinicians and analysts have been hard at work training Watson to extract and interpret physician notes, lab results, and clinical research. (All identifying patient information is removed prior to beginning the process.) Memorial Sloan Kettering’s expertise and experience with thousands of patients are the basis for teaching Watson how to translate data into actionable clinical practice based on a patient’s unique cancer. While initially focused only on breast and lung cancers, the work has expanded to more than a dozen other common solid and blood cancers such as colon, prostate, bladder, ovarian, cervical, pancreas, kidney, liver, and uterine, as well as melanomas and lymphomas.

Back to top

How the Tool Can Work

The tool — currently in development — is designed to help oncologists anywhere make the best treatment decisions for their individual patients. It learns to prompt physicians if missing information is needed to determine an initial set of treatment options. The goal is to display several choices for the physician with various degrees of confidence and to provide supporting evidence from guidelines, published research, and Memorial Sloan Kettering’s breadth of knowledge.

Back to top

The Impact

By combining Memorial Sloan Kettering’s world-renowned cancer expertise with the analytical speed of IBM Watson, the tool has the potential to transform how doctors provide individualized cancer treatment plans and to help improve patient outcomes. Oncologists anywhere will be able to make more specific and nuanced treatment decisions more quickly, based on the latest data.

The tool also has the potential to help transform clinical research by allowing doctors to match patients to clinical trials, as well as gather additional data to prompt new research opportunities. Additionally, it can be used to reduce variation in cancer care, decrease the time it takes for the latest research to enter clinical practice, increase adherence to evidence-based medicine, as well as share the wisdom and knowledge of Memorial Sloan Kettering’s expert clinicians.

Watch the video above to learn more about Memorial Sloan Kettering’s collaboration with IBM Watson. Keep a lookout for IBM’s new ad campaign and more updates from Memorial Sloan Kettering on our partnership with IBM Watson.

Back to top


Commenting is disabled for this blog post.

I am 12 yrs. out from an Autogolous Transplant for B-cell NHL. So far so good.
Hope that the "success stories" from the previous years patients are included in the data that Watson will have. Certainly this will add to the informed decisions that are to be made. Thank you for these "updates". June Fay

I just posted comments, can't find where
Stating my mothers cancer is sc lung cancer
Correction it is non sc lung cancer. I like to be directed to where my initial comment can be found. Thank u

I author a nurses blog on the Microsoft in Health website. I am always eager to see the work of Watson and Sloan Kettering. Can I include a link and mention this article in an upcoming posting? Thanks!

Amy, we would be happy to have you highlight this story by linking to it in your nurses blog. Thank you for your comment.

You are training your replacement. Bill Brody at Hopkins remarked recently that radiologists are on the cusp of obsolescence as software detection programs improve. You're helping to show that medical specialties will be next. Sure, "caring" is important, but nurses and others on the cancer care team do more of that than the physician, and given the popularity/reputation of academic cancer centers, there is a big market for treatment centers where caring is trumped by effectiveness. A national network of Watsons capable of staying up to date on the latest cancer evidence in every sub-specialty, would be capable of real-time translational research, would know all of the best decisions to make at each juncture on the best pathways, would know the effectiveness of the best specialists for subsequent referrals, would always be on call, wouldn't mistreat staff, wouldn't balk at evening/weekend hours, would promptly communicate with primary care, and would have a frame of reference for treatment decisions that is exponentially more significant than a string of anecdotes over a single career. The list goes on, but as it becomes evident that high quality cancer care comes from standardization of practice towards best evidence, computers will soon be most effective at both assessing the evidence and the patient and optimizing their treatment to both.

Hi, I am from Australia. I am pretty excited by the potential of this technology to influence cancer care here. How close is Watson to going live? Is there interest in taking it internationally? Need trial sites :-) ?
Congratulations on such a potentially ground breaking innovation.

Dear Sonia, thanks so much for your interest. We’re not directly involved in the implementation of Watson at healthcare institutions — our role has been to “train” Watson. However, we can tell you that there are plans to use Watson at Bumrungrad International Hospital, in Bangkok, Thailand. You can read more about the project here:

Is there anywhere I can have a look at a dummy/trial interface for cancer care?
Thanks! sonia

Dear Sonia, this IBM Watson demo on cancer diagnosis and treatment, which is on YouTube, may be useful and of interest:


Thank you for your comment.

Hi, I know a family member living in France that has been recently diagnosed with Ovarian cancer. I was wondering if there may be any options for her to be able to benefit of the training that the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center provided to IBM Watson for this cancer ? May you be aware of any Medical healthcare institution in France or maybe Europe that use Watson for the ovarian cancer ? Thank you for your help. Nicolas

Nicolas, thank you for reaching out. The IBM Watson work on ovarian cancer is still in early stages. We suggest your family member contact Memorial Sloan Kettering’s International Center by calling 1-212-639-4900 or going to The email address is The International Center may be able to provide guidance on physicians in France or referrals to hospitals in France. In addition, medical records can be sent to the International Center if she is interested in a consultation with an Memorial Sloan Kettering physician.

who we cure Thalassimia mager without not mached bone merrow please give the sagetion sir

i am from Karnataka-Bangalore-india

Dear Indrajeet, for more information about treatment for people with thalassemia, please visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website at
Thank you for your question.

How can advanced-stage breast cancer patients take advantage of Watson Oncology? What should they do?

Dear Adam, while Watson for Oncology is designed for physician users, patients will many types and stages of cancer may ultimately benefit. We are training Watson so oncologists anywhere will be able to make more specific and nuanced treatment decisions more quickly, based on the latest data.

If you are interested in making an appointment with one of our specialists to discuss your treatment options, please call our Physician Referral Service at 800-225-2225. Thank you for reaching out to us.

I'm afraid the Youtube video of the Watson interface referenced above is shown as private and is inaccessible. Is there a new version available elsewhere?

Hi, Alan, we checked the link and it seems to be working fine. Hopefully you are able to view it now. Thanks for your comment.


could you please let me know how the Watson partnership is going and if you are still working together?

Thank you!

I am from Greece and i suffer from metastatic melanoma. I wonder if Watson could help me suggesting the best treatmment for me , i can send you my personal records tranlated in English and also the relevant discs, is it possible to be done and what would be the total cost for that?
Thank you

Dear Konstantina, we are sorry to hear about your diagnosis. Please reach out to our International Center. They can answer your questions and make arrangements for one of our specialists to review your medical records by mail. Their email address is Learn more about our services for international patients here: Thank you for reaching out to us.

Where is MSKCC with respect to the Watson Oncology project and ability to make recommendations on recurrence of prostate cancer treatment recommendations? If there is progress in this area of cancer treatment recommendations, would like to visit and discuss. Want to make a decision on path forward as soon as possible.

Dear D.J., 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. However, if you would like to make an appointment with one of our specialists to discuss possible treatment options, please call our Physician Referral Service at 800-525-2225. Thank you for reaching out to us.

I am very much interested in knowing how MSK trains Watson. Do you feed the data into computers or do you just use natural language processing and dictate the treatment methodologies into the system?

Dear Hari, training Watson for Oncology involves numerous types of data from numerous sources, including both structured data and unstructured information that needs to be parsed through natural language processing. You may be interested in learning more about how Watson works by viewing this video from IBM:


Thank you for your interest.

what are the tumour types that Watson give answers on managment?
Does Watson suggest 2nd line treatment options?
Is there any European hospital where Watson is used ?

Dear Damayanthi, at present, Watson for Oncology trained by Memorial Sloan Kettering is currently evaluating cases for patients with breast, lung, colorectal, gastric, and cervical cancers. Second line treatment options are also available for most of these cancers. The physician team at Memorial Sloan Kettering continues to work with IBM Watson to develop support for additional cancer types.

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, including for second opinions, at MSK by calling our Physician Referral Service at 800-525-2225.

If you live outside of the US, our International Center can make arrangements for either a remote medical records review or an in-person appointment with one of our specialists. You may contact them directly at or for more information visit

Thank you for reaching out to us.

Is MSK currently using Watson to recommend lung cancer treatments and pertinent clinical trials?

Dear Alfred, while we do not use Watson in our clinical practice, our physician experts are Watson for Oncology’s teachers. We have our own clinical trial search tools that we use. The goal of Watson for Oncology is to design a powerful resource that will support the broader oncology community of physicians as they consider treatment options with their patients, many of whom may not have access to a specialty center like MSK. Thank you for your comment.

My mother is a patient at MSK. Who do we contact to arrange to run her information thru the Watson computer? Thank you.

Dear Maria, MSK does not use Watson in our own clinical practice. Rather, we help to train Watson for use at other hospitals. If your mother would like to learn more, she can speak with her doctor about this. Thank you for your comment, and best wishes to you and your family.