IBM Invests in Pathway Genomics' Watson-Powered Health App

November 13, 2014

By Allison Proffitt

November 13, 2014 | Pathway Genomics yesterday announced an investment from IBM to launch Pathway Panorama, a health-focused mobile app powered by IBM’s Watson’s natural language processing technology and fed by data from Pathway Genomics’ genetic tests.

Financial specifics were not disclosed, but the IBM investment brings Pathway’s funding total for the last six years to more than $80 million.

The investment comes after an 18-month testing period of Panorama, Ardy Arianpour, Pathway’s Chief Strategy Officer, told Bio-IT World. After a demo had been built and tested, IBM was so impressed that Big Blue decided to invest, Arianpour said.

“By tapping into IBM Watson’s cognitive intellect, Pathway Genomics is allowing consumers to ask health and wellness related questions, in their own words and receive personalized and relevant responses,” said Stephen Gold, Vice President, IBM Watson Group in a press release. "Cognitive computing solutions based on Watson's transformative technology will help define how consumers and businesses alike make better informed decisions, delivering better outcomes.”

Expect a product launch in early to mid-2015, Arianpour said, but he has already had an opportunity to use the demo version himself, calling it “mind blowing.”

Pathway Genomics will likely roll out different versions including a free version and a monthly subscription. There will also likely be consumer-focused options and a physician-focused app.

Panorama will be able to integrate all types of health data—published literature; personal fitness data; user-added information on mood, diet, sleep; electronic health record data; and genetic data—thanks to Watson’s data mining abilities. Watson will query it all to provide real time answers to user questions within three seconds.

Arianpour mentioned Fitbit and the Apple Watch as examples of products that could sync with Panorama. “We are in discussion with multiple groups and companies who want to use our powerful cognitive tool,” he added.

Any genetic data in Panorama will still come through Pathway’s physician-ordered tests. The company offers genetic tests in the areas of cancer, cardiac, carrier screening, pain management, mental health, weight management, and medications. The Health Conditions DNA Insight test is one the company considers a “general health” test; Arianpour mentioned that a genetic wellness test may serve as a Panorama genetic baseline.

When asked about where the app would fit into the regulatory framework, which has been in flux recently as FDA has changed rules on direct-to-consumer and laboratory developed tests, Arianpour dismisses the problem. “We have designed the app for health and wellness purposes and not to be a regulated device,” he said. “We are excited about working with IBM to explore additional possibilities in the future.” 

Once the data are in, users will be able to type in questions or ask them of Watson audibly. The more personal data sources a user syncs to the app, the better the answers will be. The app is HIPAA compliant, Arianpour says. Data will be kept private, though Watson will still be able to query published literature with no additional private information.

Arianpour says most users will start by asking fairly simple questions. Should I be on a gluten-free diet? How much caffeine should I drink? But Watson has been “training” with physicians, Arianpour says, and can handle very complex questions.

IBM Watson has announced several partnerships with medical and research institutions in the last 18 months including with the New York Genome Center, MD Anderson Cancer Center, Cleveland Clinic, and Memorial Sloan Kettering. The Panorama app will give anyone the chance to explore Watson’s medical knowledge.

Arianpour expects physicians to use the app both for themselves and in partnership with their patients. He calls the app a “digital doctor” but does not expect it to actually replace a physician. There are questions that Watson can’t and won’t answer. In some cases, Arianpour says, the app will direct a user to speak with his or her physician.