No human could possibly read the entirety of medical literature, personal health records, and case file histories that might inform a doctor's professional opinion when trying to save a cancer patient's life. But a machine can.
Rob Merkel, health care and life sciences lead at IBM Watson, the company's machine learning group, demonstrated the computer system's ability to digest a vast amount of material, weigh alternatives, and spit out possible treatment options for patients on Wednesday.
"What we see here are patient cases," said Merkel, standing in front of an open laptop in front of an audience at Fortune's inaugural Brainstorm Health conference in San Diego, Calif. (You can watch a livestream video feed of the conference here.)
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Merkel pulled together a profile for hypothetical person diagnosed with stage 2B breast cancer. In this case, the person possessed a 7.4 centimeter-long tumor, he said, which had not spread to other lymph nodes.
Watson compiled a number of details unique to the person and the disease's pathology: data on her hormone receptors, general health status, drug toxicity statistics, survival rate, and more. The machine combed through electronic health records and journal articles from the National Institutes of Health to arrive at a holistic picture.
"The first thing a physician do is validate that information for the patient," Merkel explained. "Once verified, Watson can bring up various treatment options."
For more on Watson taking on cancer, watch:
The proposed treatments are then sorted into color coded tiers: Green (recommended), yellow (worth exploring), and red (not recommended). The rankings vary based on a set of factors, including potential contraindications and comorbidities, for example.
"In addition to having the patient informed on various treatment options, you can turn around the iPad, and make a decision based on what's right for you," Merkel said. "About 100 hospitals are using this technology right now."
Recently, IBM (ibm) said it would open its Watson health care services to its employees starting next year. The company also recently partnered with Quest Diagnostics and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York to boost its gene sequencing data.
Update 11/03/16 10:30 a.m. ET: A previous version of this story ran under the headline, "Watch IBM Watson Select Treatments for a Cancer Patient." It has been updated to better reflect the technology and diagnosis process.