IBM’s Watson Comes To Cancer Clinics To Fine-Tune Treatments

Bringing some data-processing muscle to precision medicine

Watson in use at the University of North Carolina
IBM - Jared Lazarus/Feature Photo ServiceCourtesy IBM

Watson is a cognitive computing system with a reputation for handling data problems large and small, from culinary innovations to running an efficient business meeting to, of course, winning Jeopardy. Now Watson is helping to treat cancer. Through partnerships with 14 of the top cancer clinics in the country, the computer will help doctors select the best possible treatment based on the cancer's DNA, according to Reuters.

This is the latest effort in the national push towards precision or personalized medicine. Though many different factors can affect it, cancer is what happens when cells grow out of control, following the orders of a genetic mutation. Researchers have found that, if they can identify the mutations causing the cancer, they can treat or cure the disease more effectively. The problem is that there's a lot of data involved—the DNA sequencing, sifting through thousands of mutations to identify be the culprits, then finding the right drug to match.

Oncologists are hoping that Watson’s impressive computing power can help solve the big data problem. Doctors will upload a tumor’s DNA fingerprint to Watson’s system, and the computer will pick out the mutations behind the cancer (its programmers spent a year uploading its database of “actionable targets,” or mutations to look for). Then, Watson will sift through a huge database of clinical trials and approved medications to find the right treatment for that particular mutation.

There’s no word on how much each institution is paying for Watson’s collaboration, or how many patients they expect to help in the process—though some types of skin and lung cancer are typically sequenced, most other types of cancer are still treated with broadly-applicable chemotherapy drugs.

Precision medicine is at the cutting edge of cancer treatment, and this sort of computing power might be the key to making it more commonplace.