Commonly we refer to the current era as the Information Age, but this widespread cliché has lost meaning in being repeated so often. Stop for a moment (at least a moment) and try to understand some of what has been happening in the past few decades. Consider, for instance, the fact that medical information is now doubling every five years. This deluge of raw data essentially means that few people, if any, have had a chance to process all the discoveries and statistics in a way that benefits actual people who are suffering with disease. For this reason, it is news when computer science and medical science team up in order to give patients more personalized care.
The New York Genome Center (NYGC) has begun its first test of IBM’s Watson prototype in order to evaluate the computer system’s ability to help oncologists develop personalized care for patients with glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer that kills more than 13,000 people each year in the U.S. The scientists involved in this trial expect that NYGC’s genomic expertise combined with Watson’s computing power will speed up the process of sequencing genomes, categorizing medical data, identifying patterns, and isolating potential therapeutic solutions and in doing so, advance medicine toward the goal of truly personal care.
Who or what is Watson?
Named after the founder of IBM, Thomas J. Watson, and developed in IBM’s Research labs, Watson uses natural language processing and analytics. Essentially, Watson processes information in a manner similar to how people think, yet at the same time it is a computer that can answer complex questions based on massive amounts of big data. As a commercial technology, Watson is delivered from the cloud and is 24 times faster and smarter, with a whopping 2,400 percent improvement in performance. Originally the size of a master bedroom, Watson has been shrunk to the size of three stacked pizza boxes.
If the genetic revolution began when Watson and Crick discovered the double-helix structure of DNA in 1953, it has continued forward into the 1990s when the entire human genome was mapped and furthered with the engineering of gene sequencing machines over the past decade. “But to make this technology truly relevant to human disease, something was missing,” Dr. Robert B. Darnell, president, CEO, and scientific director of NYGC, said. “There has been a mismatch between the amount of data generated and powerful analytical tools capable of making sense of that vast amount of genetic information—the Big Data of human biology.” Enter Watson.
“Our goal is to provide Watson a consistent stream of genomic data, electronic medical records, pharmacological information and medical literature related to an individual patient’s cancer,” Darnell said. The collaboration between NYCG and Watson, then, will begin with tissue samples. Taken from a patient, the samples will be sent to a lab, where DNA will be extracted from both normal and tumorous cells using chemicals and a centrifuge and then that DNA will be fed into a sequencing machine. After the machine examines snippets and labels components, the next step in the process is for Watson to compare the genome and the cancer. Watson, then, will be taking that large data sets made up of the sequences of DNA while also processing all available medical information and then putting these together to make sense of what’s wrong with the patient along with what’s available and what would be best to treat that patient. After Watson offers its “answers” along with the probability of effectiveness, a team of scientists will review the information and choose which is best for the patients.
In the past, Watson has been used by other institutions, including Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. In their collaboration conducted last year, Watson ingested more than 600,000-plus pieces of medical evidence, and two million pages of text from 42 medical journals and clinical trials in the area of oncology research. The phenomenal power of Watson to sift through 1.5 million patient records representing decades of cancer treatment history means it is able to provide physicians with true evidence-based treatment options. And it can do so all in a matter of seconds.
“The combination of transformational technologies found in Watson with our cancer analytics and decision-making process has the potential to revolutionize the accessibility of information for the treatment of cancer in communities across the country and around the world,” said Dr. Craig B. Thompson, president and CEO of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, at the time.
The collaboration with NYGC will further refine Watson as a functional tool able to help medical professionals develop and deliver personalized cancer care. “If successful, this will be a major transformation that will help improve the lives of millions of patients around the world,” said Dr. John E. Kelly III, senior vice president and director of IBM Research.