IBM Workers to Use Watson Supercomputer to Find Cancer Treatments

October 11, 2016, 9:06 PM UTC
Watson computer at IBM in New York City
NEW YORK CITY, NY- MAY 27: IBM Watson's computer housing case. IBM's Watson computer is best known for winning Jeopardy, unaware of time constraints, while playing against humans. Some of Watson's other features are based in problem solving across many different careers. A demonstration showed how quickly Watson is able to diagnose illnesses, and provided a real life case that took doctors and nurses six days to diagnose, and only ended with the correct diagnosis because a nurse had seen the disease before. Based on symptoms input, Watson was able to correctly diagnose in minutes. The demonstration took place at IBM Watson's New York City, New York office on May 27, 2015. (Photo by Andrew Spear for The Washington Post via Getty Images.)
Andrew Spear—The Washington Post The Washington Post via Getty Images

IBM (IBM) says it is trying to make it a little easier for its American workers to find the best cancer treatments.

Beginning in January 2017, IBM employees in the U.S. will be able to use Watson supercomputer technology to help find the most effective oncology drugs and clinical trials for their specific cancers, IBM announced.

“For anyone receiving the diagnosis, or supporting a loved one through it, cancer can be overwhelming,” Kyu Rhee, MD, chief health officer, IBM Watson Health, said in the release, adding, “With this first-ever U.S. rollout of the technology, the full breadth and depth of Watson’s services can benefit an entire population of individuals who need them.”

It’s unclear just how much of IBM’s workforce will receive the benefits (the firm has 377,000 employees worldwide, although it doesn’t specify how many are in the U.S.) but the company says that many of the services will be covered by several of its American health plans.

IBM’s push into health care has been defined by its data-driven approach, especially when it comes to cancer. The company points to a simple resource allocation problem that’s hindered the most effective patient care: the fact that it is physically impossible for oncologists to keep track of every study, every clinical trial, and every breakthrough in the wildly stratified world of cancer research. Different cancers can mutate in different ways and be driven by a variety of genetic factors, and certain treatments will be more effective for some patients than for others.

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So, IBM’s strategy is to use Watson, armed with its super-computing abilities and artificial intelligence, to help give doctors and scientists in the research process an informed “second opinion” by scouring the available data, as Rhee puts it.

The firm is already helping a variety of major cancer centers with its tech; the new worker benefit program will allow employees to consult with their doctors by giving them their medical history and getting their specific cancers genetically sequenced. After that, Watson will take assist by providing both physician and patient with a report that includes the most relevant drug trial and academic studies for their specific conditions.

Traditional pharma giants like Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMY), Merck (MRK), and a compendium of newer biotechs have been treating cancer with an individualized approach since the disease can take so many forms. But there’s also been a simultaneous push by the Obama administration, as well as private business leaders like Sean Parker, for more data-sharing in biopharma, especially when it comes to developing cancer cures.

IBM’s Watson Health unit also has ambitious goals beyond oncology. The company announced a global partnership with Siemens (SIEGY) to track population health metrics earlier this week.

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