Last year, the renowned University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center announced a new action plan, called the "Moon Shot" mission, that is intended to speed progress toward reducing mortality and suffering. Now, the Anderson Cancer Center has teamed up with IBM’s Watson cognitive computing system in order to dramatically enhance its efforts to eradicate cancer.

When naming its “moon shot” program, MD Anderson hoped to evoke memories of another Texas triumph — namely, the day NASA’s mission control (based in Houston’s Johnson Space Center) helped land a manned spaceship on the moon. Like the historic ‘giant leap for mankind,’ MD Anderson is hoping to radically advance research in the area of:

  • breast and ovarian cancer
  • acute myeloid leukemia (AML) & myelodysplastic (MDS) leukemia
  • chronic lymphocytic leukemia
  • lung cancer
  • melanoma
  • prostate cancer

Adding IBM’s Watson to the mix, MD Anderson believes, will be the crucial factor in achieving its desired results.

Houston, We Have a Problem

Medical decision-making is a hugely complex process. Consider for a moment that medical journals publish new discoveries and information every day. In fact, the amount of available medical information doubles every five years, according to IBM. Yet, 81 percent of physicians report spending only five hours per month, or less, reading journals. New technological patient procedures also supply a wealth of data that, if grouped together and analyzed, could potentially help doctors make better medical choices. Add to this the fact that MD Anderson — which treats more than 100,000 patients each year — has a staggering amount of clinical oncology knowledge lying buried in the notes of its many nurses and physicians.

Although computers should be able to help sort through the overload, too much of this data is ‘unstructured’ — available only in natural language. And meanings, in natural language, may be implicit, dependent on context, or stated metaphorically. Until now, computers have not been able to comprehend subtleties like figurative language or connotation when searching for meaning. What makes IBM’s Watson so special, then, is that it possesses exactly these kind of 'natural' language abilities. IBM's Watson not only reads data sets, but it's also fully fluent in human speech.

“IBM Watson represents a new era of computing, in which data no longer needs to be a challenge, but rather, a catalyst to more efficiently deploy new advances into patient care,” Manoj Saxena, general manager of IBM Watson Solutions, stated in a press release.

Details of The Plan

Following a year-long collaboration between MD Anderson and IBM, Watson has begun to power the “Oncology Expert Advisor,” a new clinical tool based on cognitive computing capabilities.

The Oncology Expert Advisor is designed to gather and integrate data and knowledge from a variety of sources, including the detailed notes of MD Anderson’s own clinicians and researchers. At first, it will only be accessible to clinicians in just one clinical field: leukemia. Through a special computer interface, the Oncology Expert Advisor will assist clinicians in developing treatment plans for patients who suffer from leukemia, which causes nearly one-third of all cancer deaths in children and adolescents who are younger than 15.

In practical terms, the cognitive computing technology is expected to work like this: A physician will begin by posing a query to the Oncology Expert Advisor system, describing symptoms and other related factors. Next, the Watson-powered 'advisor' will mine all available patient data to find relevant facts about family history and existing conditions. After this, the Watson-powered program will search the plethora of medical information currently available from clinical studies, journal articles, and university research. Then, it will add doctor's and nurse's notes as well as treatment guidelines to the mix before making a complete analysis of the total data. Finally, the Oncology Expert Advisor will provide a list of potential diagnoses, with an individual ‘score’ indicating the level of confidence, attached to each.

Voila! "By helping researchers and physicians understand the meaning behind each other's data, we can empower researchers with evidence to advance novel discoveries, while helping enable physicians to make the best treatment choices or place patients in the right clinical trials," Saxena stated in a press release.

With the help of IBM’s Watson, clinicians at MD Anderson Cancer Center may now be enabled to make the kind of insightful leap necessary to eradicating cancer.