IBM's Watson Shows up for Work at Cedars-Sinai's Cancer Center

IBM's Watson supercomputer is about to begun work evaluating evidence-based cancer treatment options that can be delivered to the physician in a matter of seconds for assessment.

IBM and WellPoint, which is Blue Cross Blue Shield's largest health plan, are building applications that will essentially turn the Watson computer into an adviser for oncologists at Cedars-Sinai's Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute in Los Angeles, according to Steve Gold, director of worldwide marketing for IBM Watson Solutions.

Cedars-Sinai's historical data on cancer as well as its current clinical records will be ingested into an iteration of IBM's Watson that will reside at WellPoint's headquarters. The computer will act as a medical data repository on multiple types of cancer. WellPoint will then work with Cedars-Sinai physicians to design and develop applications as well as validate their capabilities.

Dr. M. William Audeh, medical director of the cancer institute, will work closely with WellPoint's clinical experts to provide advice on how the Watson may be best used in clinical practice to support increased understanding of the evolving body of knowledge on cancer, including emerging therapies not widely known by physicians.

Watson Solves Problems

IBM announced earlier this year that healthcare would be the first commercial application for the computer, which defeated two human champions on the popular television game show Jeopardy! in February.

WellPoint partnered with IBM this fall to develop Watson-based applications intended to improve patient care through the use of evidence-based medicine, which is designed to standardize patient treatments by identifying proven best practices. A simple example of evidence-based medicine in action is when a provider automatically places someone who has suffered a heart attack on an aspirin regimen upon leaving the hospital. Cedars-Sinai is the first application of the partnership.

"Where Watson really lends itself to solving problems is information rich opportunities and the information is changing constantly and in various forms, structure and unstructured coming from disparate systems," IBM 's Gold said. "Healthcare fits that requirement exceptionally well."

Custom Configuration

The Watson supercomputer that beat past Jeopardy champions was made up of 90 IBM Power 750 Express servers powered by eight-core processors -- four in each machine for a total of 32 processors per machine. The servers were virtualized using a kernel-based virtual machine (KVM) implementation, creating a server cluster with a total processing capacity of 80 teraflops. A teraflop is one trillion operations per second.

The iteration of Watson being used by Cedars-Sinai, which will reside on WellPoint's campus and can be accessed remotely over a WAN, is vastly smaller, according to Gold.

IBM's Watson supercomputer as it was used for the game show Jeopardy!. The iteration of Watson being used by Cedars-Sinai will be much smaller, but it will have the same capability to ingest and analyze data from disparate systems, both structured and unstructured
"The Jeopardy! configuration was done with a specific purpose in mind. It was an in-memory application designed to respond to a question in three seconds," Gold said. "It had 2880 cores and 15 terabytes of memory. Most situations won't dictate that level of response time. For a doctor, if the response is in six seconds or 10 seconds ... obviously the implications for the response are more important than the turnaround time."

Working with speech and imaging recognition software provider Nuance Communications, IBM said the supercomputer can assist healthcare professionals in culling through gigabytes or terabytes of patient healthcare information to determine how to best treat specific illnesses.

For example, Watson's analytics technology, used with Nuance's voice and clinical language understanding software, could help a physician consider all related texts, reference materials, prior cases, and latest knowledge in journals and medical literature when treating an illness. The analysis could quickly help physicians determine the best options for diagnosis and treatment.

Watson will likely be good at helping physicians prescribe treatments that will have the best outcome, Gold said. For example, between the first and second prescribed treatments of a cancer patient, 50% of the time the prescribed medication changes for the second treatment based on the patient's reaction to the initial treatment, Gold said. Watson may be able to better prescribe initial treatments based on past patient data and information specific to the patient being treated.

"The goal is to assist physicians in evaluating evidence-based treatment options that can be delivered to the physician in a matter of seconds for assessment," he said.

Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed . His e-mail address is lmearian@computerworld.com.

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