IBM Announces Watson Genomic Analytics; Collaborations with 14 Cancer Centers

May 5, 2015

By Bio-IT World Staff

May 5, 2015 | IBM Watson made a series of announcements today at World of Watson, a symposium IBM is hosting in New York. In opening remarks, IBM CEO Ginni Rometty highlighted Watson Genomic Analytics; introduced collaborations with 14 leading cancer centers to use the solution to scale precision oncology; and announced a partnership with Epic to integrate Watson into EHR systems.

“I am going to boldly predict that in the future every decision mankind makes—every decision—is going to be informed by a cognitive system like Watson. As a result, our lives in this world are going to be better for it,” Rometty said. “I can’t encourage you enough to stay with this. These ideas are going to be transformative.”

World of Watson 

At the World of Watson opening, Rometty said 5,000 companies from 23 industries were in the pipeline to partner with Watson. Efforts now are focusing on standardizing and scaling Watson.

Watson has spent a great deal of time learning oncology and medicine, and Rometty said that the languages of metallurgy and law are up next. Watson is learning to speak—and think in—new languages. The system is getting a new sense, Rometty said: vision. “Not just to identify a cat in a picture, or tell me how old this face is. Watson is learning how to recognize anomalies in images: melanoma, breast cancer, a cardiovascular blockage. To date, [Watson] has already ingested 45 million images.”

Watson represents the third era of computing, Rometty believes. The earliest computers counted things. Our current systems are programmable. But Watson learns, she said.

“More than anything, what makes this different from just artificial intelligence is its ability to augment the decisions you and I make… Watson deals in the gray area, where there’s not a perfect right or wrong answer.”

Medicine will always exist in the gray area.

IBM announced Watson Health Cloud last month as part of IBM’s broader Watson Health initiative to advance patient-centered care and improve health. Rometty called the announcement, “one of my proudest moments as an IBMer.” The platform builds on relationships IBM has already built in health and life sciences including partnerships with the New York Genome Center, MD Anderson Cancer Center, and with Pathway Genomics.   

“The future of health and wellness is going to be about information, Rometty said. “[Watson Health] is an open cloud platform, HIPAA-compliant.” Rometty named the initial partners—Apple, Medtronics, and Johnson & Johnson—and said many more are coming. The company also announced two big acquisitions in the health and wellness space in mid-April when it announced Watson Health: Phytel, a provider of population health management software, and Explorys, a healthcare intelligence company with one of the largest clinical datasets available.

“This is about population health management; this is about evidence-based medicine. Together [Phytel and Explorys] manage almost 100 million lives. Think of all that information!”

Watson Genomic Analytics 

Watson Genomic Analytics, a cloud-based service for evidence gathering and analysis, looks for variations in the full human genome and uses Watson’s cognitive capabilities to examine data sources such as treatment guidelines, research, clinical studies, journal articles and patient information.

The solution then provides a list of medical literature that is relevant to the case along with drugs that have been identified in the literature. The patient's doctor then reviews this information alongside underlying evidence to make more informed treatment decisions. Watson Genomic Analytics constantly gets smarter, as the system learns from patient data.

In the initial phase of the program, participating organizations will apply Watson to the DNA data of patients who are battling all types of cancer, including lymphoma, melanoma, pancreatic, ovarian, brain, lung, breast and colorectal cancer.

“This collaboration is about giving clinicians the ability to do for a broader population what is currently only available to a small number – identify personalized, precision cancer treatments,” said Steve Harvey, vice president, IBM Watson Health in a statement. “The technology that we’re applying to this challenge brings the power of cognitive computing to bear on one of the most urgent and pressing issues of our time—the fight against cancer—in a way that has never before been possible.”  

Among the first cancer institute to participate in the project are Ann & Robert H Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, BC Cancer Agency, City of Hope, Cleveland Clinic, Duke Cancer Institute, Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center in Omaha, Nebraska, McDonnell Genome Institute at Washington University in St. Louis, New York Genome Center, Sanford Health, University of Kansas Cancer Center, University of North Carolina Lineberger Cancer Center, University of Southern California Center for Applied Molecular Medicine, University of Washington Medical Center, and Yale Cancer Center.

But IBM isn’t content to bring Watson’s cognitive prowess to bear only on oncology treatment. IBM is also collaborating with Epic and Mayo Clinic to integrate Watson into its EHR system.

Epic plans to embed Watson’s cognitive computing capabilities into its advanced decision support offerings through the use of open standards, including Health Level -7 (HL7) Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources (FHIR) Application Programming Interfaces (APIs). Connecting through Epic’s open API, the two systems will extend clinician expertise and help care-givers access knowledge more quickly.

“Accessing Watson’s virtual brainpower from the Epic platform is energizing from a creative standpoint,” said Epic president, Carl Dvorak. “We are bringing another level of cognitive computing and augmented intelligence to mainstream healthcare, to improve safety and outcomes for patients globally.”

The integration with Epic should serve to connect more patients with clinical trials.

Norman Sharpless, Director, University of North Carolina Lineberger Cancer Center, believes Watson will be the subject of his own clinical trial within the next two years. He predicts a trial comparing doctor-selected treatment regimens to courses of treatment chosen by “Watson-aided-humans.”

At UNC, Dr. Sharpless has already used a Watson-based approach to figure out which mutations are important in cancer patients. “We don’t do well with most patients with advanced cancers, so the ability to bring a powerful technology to the oncology community is very exciting,” he said at the event.