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Bringing Precision Medicine to the Masses: IBM’s Watson Crunches Big Data for Big Impact

October 19, 2016

Artificial Intelligence

The movement to bring the benefits of precision medicine to the masses gained significant momentum this week, as IBM launched a new project with Quest Diagnostics to help better diagnose and treat cancer patients across the nation.

Called IBM Watson for Genomics, the project is a genomic tumor sequencing and diagnostic analysis service, powered by artificial intelligence, that will work to diagnose cancer patients and ultimately, match them with specific, targeted interventions and treatment plans based on the latest research and standards of care.

Once a patient’s tumor is sequenced by Quest Diagnostics, Watson analyzes the genetic alternations found to help identify potentially treatable mutations. Watson also cross-references this information with Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center’s precision oncology database, OncoKB, and additional clinical evidence from MIT and Harvard. Watson then creates a comprehensive picture of the patient’s cancer type, and identifies possible targeted therapies and clinical trials for which an individual may be eligible.

Not only can Watson draw inferences from a patient’s tumor and electronic medical record, it also can compare its findings with countless other data sources, including patient cases, medical articles, and clinical trial results. This information is typically unstructured and hard to locate without weeks of manual searching, but Watson is able to render a digestible report and care plan in a fraction of the time.

Today, an estimated 14 million Americans are living with cancer and community oncologists provide approximately 70 percent of cancer care among this group. Through this program, these oncologists will have access to the power of “big data,” enabling them to diagnose and treat patients with evidence-based interventions on par with those provided by leading cancer centers that have more resources.

Watson’s application for tumor analysis is only one aspect of the technology’s implications for improved healthcare. Its cognitive computing is also helping to assess other sources of traditionally complex information, such as X-rays, MRIs, and other types of imaging, such as mammograms, for data early detection and treatment of serious diseases.

With the vast amount of data and information being accumulated in healthcare, there are nearly endless possibilities for technology that can sift through these valuable troves. In the near future, innovations such as Watson could be widely adopted by providers across specialties, allowing them to more easily access big data insights on a broad scale for personalized care.