Earlier today, IBM announced that it would be using Watson, the system that famously wiped the floor with human Jeopardy champions, to tackle a somewhat more significant problem: choosing treatments for cancer. In the process, the company hopes to help usher in the promised era of personalized medicine.
The announcement was made at the headquarters of IBM’s partner in this effort, the New York Genome Center; its CEO, Robert Darnell called the program “not purely clinical and not purely research.” Rather than seeking to gather new data about the mutations that drive cancer, the effort will attempt to determine if Watson can parse genome data and use it to recommend treatments.
Darnell said that the project would start with 20 to 25 patients who are suffering from glioblastoma, a type of brain cancer with a poor prognosis. Currently, the median survival time after diagnosis is only 14 months; “Time, frankly, is not your friend when you have glioblastoma,” as Darnell put it. Samples from those patients (including both healthy and cancerous tissue) would be subjected to extensive DNA sequencing, including both the genome and the RNA transcribed from it. “What comes out is an absolute gusher of information,” he said.
It should theoretically be possible to analyze that data and use it to customize a treatment that targets the specific mutations present in tumor cells. But right now, doing so requires a squad of highly trained geneticists, genomics experts, and clinicians. It’s a situation that Darnell said simply can’t scale to handle the patients with glioblastoma, much less other cancers.
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