While perhaps better known as a Jeopardy! winner than an oncologist, Watson joined the VA’s Precision Oncology program in 2016 following the Obama administration’s introduction of the National Cancer Moonshot Initiative to promote cancer research in the country. Together, Watson and VA oncologists analyze tumor samples submitted by patients and look for mutations in the cancer’s genome. With that information, they can better target specific drugs and treatments to fight the cancer.
Since their partnership began, Watson and the VA have worked with over 2,700 veterans, and the announcement today will enable VA oncologists to use Watson’s genomics technology through at least 2019.
“It is incredibly challenging to read, understand and stay up-to-date with the breadth and depth of medical literature and link them to relevant mutations for personalized cancer treatments,” said Dr. Kyu Rhee, chief health officer for IBM Watson Health, in a statement. “…AI can play an important role in helping to scale precision oncology, as demonstrated in our work with VA, the largest integrated health system in the U.S.”
Before the initial partnership in 2016, IBM trained Watson for two years in the oncology departments of over 20 cancer institutes and early results found it made decisions that matched a team of scientists and clinicians.
While two years hardly awards the AI a degree in medicine, Watson does eclipse human professionals in one aspect: consuming data. Which is particularly important when you consider that the veteran population alone accounts for 3.5 percent of the nation’s cancer patients. (According to the National Cancer Institute, an estimated 1,735,350 new cases of cancer will be diagnosed in 2018).
In many ways, providing care and treatment for these patients is a numbers game, and one that Watson just might be able to help with.