Published on June 27, 2015
Candida Vitale and the other fellows at MD Anderson’s leukemia treatment center had known one another for only a few months, but they already were very tight. The nine of them shared a small office and were always hanging out on weekends.
But she wasn’t quite sure what to make of the new guy.
Rumor had it that he had finished med school in two years and had a photographic memory of thousands of journal articles and relevant clinical trials. When the fellows were asked to summarize patients’ records for the senior faculty in the mornings, he always seemed to have the best answers.
“I was surprised,” said Vitale, a 31-year-old who received her MD in Italy. “Even if you work all night, it would be impossible to be able to put this much information together like that.”
The new guy’s name was a mouthful, so many of his colleagues simply called him by his nickname: Watson.
Four years after destroying human competitors on “Jeopardy!” to win a suspense-filled tournament watched by millions, the IBM computer brain is everywhere. It’s done stints as a call center operator and hotel concierge, and been spotted helping people pick songs. It’s even published its own cookbook, with 231 pages of what the company calls “recipes for innovation.” (The reviews haven’t been flattering — one foodie declared one of Chef Watson’s creations “the worst burrito I’ve ever had.”)
But these feats were essentially gimmicks.
IBM is now training Watson to be a cancer specialist. The idea is to use Watson’s increasingly sophisticated artificial intelligence to find personalized treatments for every cancer patient by comparing disease and treatment histories, genetic data, scans and symptoms against the vast universe of medical knowledge.
Such precision targeting is possible to a limited extent, but it can take weeks of dedicated sleuthing by a team of researchers. Watson would be able to make this type of treatment recommendation in mere minutes.
The IBM program is one of several new aggressive health-care projects that aim to sift through the huge pools of data created by people’s records and daily routines and then identify patterns and connections to predict needs. It is a revolutionary approach to medicine and health care that is likely to have significant social, economic and political consequences.
Lynda Chin, a physician-scientist and associate vice chancellor for the University of Texas system who is overseeing the Watson project at MD Anderson Cancer Center, said these types of programs are key to “democratizing” medical treatment and eliminating the disparity that exists between those with access to the best doctors and those without.
“I see technology like this as a way to really break free from our current health-care system, which is very much limited by the community providers. If you want expert care you have to go to an expert center,” she said, “but there are never enough of those to go around.”
Instead of having to find specialists in a different city, photocopy and send all the patient’s files to them, and spend countless hours researching the medical literature, a doctor could simply consult Watson, she said.
Jho Low, the 33-year-old billionaire who is bankrolling the $50 million MD Anderson project with Watson, said the effort grew out of his grandfather’s treatment for leukemia in Malaysia. Low said that he felt fortunate to be able to connect his grandfather’s doctors remotely with MD Anderson specialists to devise the best treatment plan. He believes everyone, rich or poor, should have the same access to that kind of expertise.