IBM's new health analytics division will marshal its supercomputers against one of medicine's biggest terrors: cancer. The company announced Tuesday that 14 cancer centers and health systems have signed on to use the technology.
Watson, IBM's supercomputer platform, will use its advanced cognitive capabilities to sift through patients' immense genetic data and combine those DNA insights with medical literature to determine the best treatment. A process that would normally take weeks for a physician to complete is expected to take only a few minutes for Watson.
Cancer specialists at 14 hospitals across the country will be among the first to work with the technology. Watson's analytic capabilities are expected to help clinicians decide whether personalized treatments targeting specific cancer-causing genetic mutations could be more beneficial for a patient than standard chemotherapy, surgery or radiation.
IBM also announced Tuesday that it will work with electronic health-record developer Epic Systems Corp. to integrate Watson's cognitive abilities into its EHR system. Watson will use patient-specific data to offer medical literature and case studies in real time in conjunction with Epic's advanced decision-support technology.
The Armonk, N.Y.-based computer giant introduced its Watson Health division during the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society conference in April. With the company's acquisition of Explorys, a cloud-computing system spinoff from the Cleveland Clinic, IBM expects to create about 2,000 new and existing jobs in Boston and New York City dedicated to healthcare analytics. The company said it plans to invest $1 billion in the pursuit.
Watson Genomic Analytics, the platform for the cancer project, is a cloud-based service for evidence gathering and analysis. It will look for variations in the full human genome and for possible drugs and treatments found in research, clinical studies, treatment guidelines, journal articles and patient information.
“We think what we're doing is very unique, in part because we have capabilities in cognitive computing that are unique," said Sean Hogan, IBM general manager and vice president for healthcare. "It's processing large-volume data but also processing content and knowledge.”
The cost of analyzing patient genomes has dropped dramatically in recent years, so more patients have asked their doctors for targeted therapies, Hogan said. IBM hopes the Watson platform will make this process more accessible to a wider group of patients.
As Watson mines more and more patient data, the supercomputer's rationale and insights are expected to improve. This will also allow researchers to access a bigger store of data that could better reveal patterns and best practices.
Handling all of that patient data comes at a risk. Sophisticated, record-breaking hacks this past year at insurers Premera Blue Cross and Anthem have shown that the healthcare industry falls short when it comes to protecting valuable patient data.
Many of the organizations interested in harnessing Watson's capabilities have approached IBM because of its sophisticated data security capabilities, Hogan said. He noted that a lot of the information used by Watson can reside locally with clients, while IBM takes the necessary steps to protect information in the cloud.