Evidence-based, personalized medicine is one of the grand opportunities and challenges we face in healthcare. The first sequencing of the humane genome 10 years ago was a big step toward that goal and now, we can map every strand of DNA in a person’s body in just a few minutes for under $1,000.

We have more knowledge about genomics and human disease today than ever before, and this knowledge provides tremendous promise for new medical breakthroughs. But it can be too much information for any single person to keep up with. Indeed, mapping out DNA-based treatment options requires a deep understanding of massive amounts of information, creating a big data and analytics challenge. The answers may be out there, but they may be out of reach. 

When we can harness this information – the big data of human biology – we believe we can help advance and disseminate the great potential of personalized medicine and apply it to some of the world’s greatest health challenges.

Consider cancer. DNA sequencing is helping doctors and researchers take major leaps forward in understanding the complexity of the disease. Decoding genomes is helping identify the specific mutations that drive cancer growth. Yet, to translate that into personalized treatment options, doctors have to sift through DNA data to pinpoint the cancer causing mutation and mountains of medical literature, research studies, and the existing pharmacopoeia to find out how that mutation might be stopped. Only then can the doctor begin to create a personalized treatment plan.

This time-intensive process makes it hard for clinicians to use DNA sequencing to quickly and efficiently tailor treatment to every individual’s cancer.

This is why the New York Genome Center is partnering with IBM, bringing the Watson cognitive computing system into the fight against cancer. Watson will help pinpoint patterns in data that reveal the underlying drivers of illnesses, and it will sift through mountains of medical information to come up with individualized cancer treatment options.

The New York Genome Center project will start with gliobastoma, an aggressive type of brain cancer that has a five-year survival rate of just 10 percent. Initially, researchers will use Watson’s ability to learn, understand human language, and process massive amounts of information in a pilot study to deliver targeted, DNA-based treatment options to patients with gliobastama.

Right now, it takes weeks, even months, for doctors to pore over a patient’s genetic data and all the relevant medical research and literature to uncover personalized treatment options. With Watson, we’re hoping to slash that time down to less than three minutes, while combing through much more information than any one doctor can keep up with.

There are 23 million medical research papers on PubMed, and it is now possible through Watson to take advantage of all that information for each patient’s treatment plan based on their specific DNA. As we add to our medical knowledge, Watson can help doctors use that information to deliver effective, personalized treatment decisions for each patient.

Just as knowledge and affordability of genomics improve, so too must the advanced technologies that are needed to process the information and help create meaningful and useful insights for clinicians.

With Watson, we may finally be on track to accelerate the realization of evidence-based solutions that are unique to each patient. We’re starting with glioblastoma, but we hope soon to expand the solution to all types of cancer.

Technology like Watson is pushing the frontiers of personalized medicine. By collaborating with the world’s most innovative researchers and clinicians to accelerate new discoveries, we believe we can indeed harness innovative technologies like Watson to help uncover the next major breakthroughs in the fight against cancer.

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