IBM's Watson supercomputer has long held out the promise of being a partner in our endeavors rather than simply being a better search engine. Now an improved version of Watson has joined the oncology staff at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.

Of the estimated 1.6 million new cases of cancer expected in 2013, roughly 20 percent could be diagnosed incorrectly or incompletely. As early and correct diagnosis is crucial to the successful treatment of cancer, poor diagnoses and/or treatment regimens contribute considerably to the roughly one-in-three cancer mortality rate.

The first commercial applications for IBM's Watson cognitive computer have been developed by IBM, health-care facilitator WellPoint, and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. The new products include Interactive Care Insights for Oncology, and the WellPoint Interactive Care Guide and Interactive Care Reviewer systems. These applications of Watson's "big data" analytical abilities and natural language processing capability represent a breakthrough in the development of evidence-based decision support systems.

While the original Watson filled three large racks of equipment, the svelte new system can be run on a single Power 750 server and incorporates more efficient algorithms, resulting in substantially higher performance.

Watson has been going to med school for more than a year, being trained in oncology. Memorial Sloan-Kettering has tutored Watson in complex cancer treatments, as well as the genetic research which enables individually specialized treatments based on the genetics of a patient's tumor.

Watson has absorbed, cross-correlated, and been tutored in an amazing amount of medical information, including:

  • Over 600,000 diagnostic reports
  • Two million pages of medical journal articles
  • One and a half million patient records
  • 14,700 hours of hands-on training
  • The result is a cloud-based adviser that never forgets that obscure paper discussing what it means when a case that appears to be esophageal cancer involves bloody sputum or bone spurs. It will identify treatment options for individual cases, and back them up with detailed evidence and sources.

    “It can take years for the latest developments in oncology to reach all practice settings,” said Craig B.Thompson, M.D., President of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. “The combination of transformational technologies found in Watson with our cancer analytics and decision-making process has the potential to revolutionize the accessibility of information for the treatment of cancer in communities across the country and around the world. Ultimately, we expect this comprehensive, evidence-based approach will profoundly enhance cancer care by accelerating the dissemination of practice-changing research at an unprecedented pace.”

    The video below illustrates Watson in action on an oncology treatment.