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IBM Watson to aid in brain cancer cures through big data analytics

Ed Scannell

IBM recently moved a step closer to mainstreaming Watson through a collaborative effort with the New York Genome Center, and the cognitive computing systems' capabilities could be used to solve big data problems for enterprise IT shops as well.

One of the goals of the joint effort with the New York Genome Center (NYGC) is to allow patients, particularly those with

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glioblastoma, to receive treatments specific to their brain cancer mutations. Until now, doctors and clinicians lacked the tools needed to bring this level of DNA-based treatments to patients.

The set of technologies that comprise Watson are clearly something that could be used in commercial settings.

Adrian Bowles, president of STORM Insights, Inc.

Some of the search and analytics capabilities Watson uses in the project could reveal critical treatments buried deep in mountains of data. Some of the technologies in Watson could also unlock solutions to data analytics problems for large commercial IT shops, IBM officials said.

"Most people view what we are doing (with NYGC) as a classic big data problem given the extensive searching and analyzing Watson has to do," said Steve Harvey, worldwide technology and analytics leader for IBM Global Technology Services. "When you look across a Fortune 100 company and all the manual tasks you need to narrow down, or correlating that information to tons of unstructured data, you are solving the same kind of problems."

While the NYGC project shows what Watson can do, some observers don't see the NYGC deal turning Watson into an overnight success in commercial IT accounts. But the technology value is clear.

"The set of technologies that comprise Watson are clearly something that could be used in commercial settings," said Adrian Bowles, president of STORM Insights, Inc., a technology market intelligence firm based in Binghamton, N.Y.  

One of the technologies that could boost the fortune of IBM Watson in large corporations is its use of natural language that encourages conversations with users making inquiries.

"One of the strengths of Watson is to promote a dialog that can greatly help with the discovery of useful information whether it is a medical diagnosis or some other patterns that contribute to the basic literature in any number of markets," Bowles said.

IBM officials believe the deal with NYGC is notable because it gives Watson the chance to prove what it can do in a real world environment.

"What I find exciting about this [collaboration] is the fact we aren't just talking about it, we are doing it," Harvey said. "This will be a real life example of where you see the intersection of technology and biology in action. We are trying to leverage technology for those who need it the most."

To deliver such targeted treatments, doctors must correlate data taken from genome sequencing to vast amounts of data contained in medical journals, new studies and clinical records. No easy task in a period where medical information is doubling every five years, according to Harvey.

The genome sequencing lifecycle is a complex process with multiple phases, the last of which is determining the differences between a normal cell and a cancer cell. The process can take three to four weeks to determine the differences which can range anywhere from 20,000 to 1 million.

"The challenge for Watson is helping figure out quickly which handful of mutations among 20,000 to 1 million differences could be actually driving the cancer," Harvey explained. "When you have someone afflicted with a terrible disease and doesn't have a lot of time, then getting the process down from three weeks to minutes is important," Harvey said

So far, NYGC has enrolled approximately 25 patients diagnosed with glioblastoma from a number of New York hospitals, who will participate in the clinical study.


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