Researchers at the University of Kansas Cancer Center now have some of the same IBM Watson computer technology that famously beat the best human players of the game show “Jeopardy” a few years back.
Instead of giving Watson answers to “Jeopardy” questions, doctors at KU and 12 other cancer centers in the United States and Canada will be feeding the computer system reams of data on patient genomes. Ultimately, Watson will use this genomic information — as well as data from medical journals, clinical studies and treatment guidelines — to come up with treatment options tailored to individual patients.
The collaboration was announced Tuesday in New York during an IBM symposium on Watson technology.
“Watson will sift through the thousands, the tens of thousands, of genetic changes between a patient’s tumor cells and normal cells. It will learn and start finding which genetic changes are important to the cancer,” said KU Cancer Center deputy director Andrew Godwin. “The hope is this will be a tool in our everyday treatment of patients.”
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Cancer specialists already routinely run tests on some patients for specific genetic mutations that are known to affect how they will respond to certain chemotherapy drugs.
“We don’t want to give patients therapies that aren’t going to be effective, and that can be toxic and very costly,” Godwin said.
For example, only some breast cancer patients benefit from the drug Herceptin. Such genetic mutations also play a role in which drugs doctors prescribe for lung and colorectal cancers.
Analyzing a patient’s entire genome “takes us to another level,” Godwin said. “Instead of looking at a few mutations, we can look at thousands.”
Watson’s computing power will be used to find genetic “points of vulnerability” of tumors to different drugs, Godwin said. The computer system also may prove useful in developing combinations of drugs that attack tumors with multiple vulnerabilities.
“We’re learning that one drug may have action against a tumor but it isn’t enough,” he said. “We need to combine therapies.”
IBM began developing Watson about a decade ago. The computer system became well-known in 2011 by winning at “Jeopardy” against human contestants. In 2013, IBM started applying Watson to health care with applications to help doctors make treatment decisions.
Godwin described the current collaboration among cancer centers as a four-month project. With funding from philanthropic donations and the University of Kansas Hospital, the KU Cancer Center is sequencing genomes of both normal and cancerous cells of 40 patients with leukemia, lung, ovarian, colorectal or brain cancer.
Other cancer centers are focusing on different cancers, including melanoma and breast and pancreatic cancer. Personal identifying information is being removed from the data before it’s given to Watson.
Godwin said that the cancer centers will be working with IBM, providing feedback on whether the cancer specialists agree with what Watson is finding.
“It’s only as smart as the information out there, but it’s continually learning,” he said.
IBM said in a statement that the collaboration “will enable clinicians to use Watson with a much broader set of patients by the end of 2015 and will accelerate the promise of personalized medicine for cancer patients everywhere.”
The other cancer centers participating in the Watson collaboration: the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago; the City of Hope; the Duke Cancer Institute; the Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center in Omaha, Neb.; Washington University; the New York Genome Center; Sanford Health; the University of North Carolina; the University of Southern California; the University of Washington Medical Center; Yale Cancer Center; and the BC Cancer Agency in British Columbia.