IBM’s Jeopardy!-winning supercomputer Watson is to start exploring genetics in an attempt to tackle a rare brain cancer.
Watson famously beat two champion Jeopardy players in a three-day challenge in 2011. While supercomputers can process information far more quickly than humans, the victory was significant as it showed Watson was able to process language and link concepts.
IBM later made Watson available for several projects such as automated help systems and attempts by hospitals to figure out the best options for buying supplies. Last November IBM made Watson available for remote cloud-computing access.
This week the New York Genome Center said it will use Watson to study 25 patients with glioblastoma multiforme, a rare brain cancer that normally leads to death within a year even with all available medical treatment. It kills an estimated 13,000 Americans each year.
The idea is to sequence the genomes of the 25 patients, then do the same thing with their tumors. Staff believe Watson may be able to make a quicker job of comparing the two sets of DNA and RNA data and spotting not just the differences, but any consistent patterns in those differences. More importantly, Watson will then pore through existing medical data and studies to try to spot patterns between particular tumors and particular combinations of drugs and other treatment.
The immediate goal is to give a more accurate insight into which drug treatments might work best for the condition. It’s even possible it could lead to personalized treatment for individual tumors.
At the moment, analyzing a genome can at least take several weeks and, according to Forbes, costs an average of $17,000. The hope is that Watson can reduce costs and slash the process to a matter of minutes.
Watson won’t replace medical experts. They’ll still make decisions based on available data: Watson’s role is to widen the range of data under consideration and then help isolate the data that’s most useful for humans to make informed judgments upon.