IBM Partners With American Cancer Society on Watson Cancer Advisor

IBM and the American Cancer Society are working on a virtual cancer health advisor to provide personalized guidance to cancer patients.

IBM Watson

IBM and the American Cancer Society (ACS) today announced a partnership to develop a Watson-based advisor for people fighting cancer—to bring the cognitive power of IBM's Watson, not only to physicians treating cancer, but to those suffering from the disease.

IBM Chairman, President and CEO Ginni Rometty announced the collaboration at the 13th Annual World Health Care Congress. The goal of the new cancer health advisor is to provide cancer patients, survivors, and caregivers with ACS resources and guidance personalized to each individual's fight against cancer, Kyu Rhee, MD and chief health officer of IBM Watson Health, told eWEEK.

IBM is currently working on this Watson-based advisor with the ACS and Rhee said he anticipates an early 2017 release of the offering.

Rhee said this effort is related to IBM's Watson Health unit's work and the Watson for Oncology app, which helps physicians make more informed decisions on treatment for patients. It provides oncologists with evidence-based treatment options gleaned from reams of information Watson has ingested. The new virtual cancer health advisor is aimed at helping patients make their own decisions on which treatment options are best for their situation. Longer term, ACS and IBM plan to integrate the new advisor with IBM's existing Watson for Oncology offering for doctors, Rhee said.

"As a physician, I can tell you how challenging it is to know so much information—whether it's information in the medical charts or information about cancer treatments in journals or textbooks," Rhee said. "It's humanly impossible to know all that information, so the power of cognitive, the power of Watson, is significant."

What's key about this IBM partnership with the American Cancer Society is it is ultimately about helping the patient deal with the vast amount of information that they have to consider as they go on as a patient with cancer or even a caregiver who's taking care of a person with cancer, he said.

"Cancer is anything but a simple condition both in terms of the complexities of the disease and its treatment options," said Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT. "Plus, the emotional weight of a cancer diagnosis is difficult for most people to bear."

For instance, a person with breast cancer faces a diagnosis and treatment options as they try to decide between surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, Rhee said. Potentially, there is a broad range of available treatment options.

"What's great about this partnership is the ability for us to take advantage of the expertise of the American Cancer Society who has experience in providing support to people in that same situation and seen their needs during that cancer journey," Rhee said. "So this ability to leverage that expertise, that knowledge base and the power of cognitive to then be able to almost predict, personalize and promote help is going to be really exciting."

More than 1.6 million Americans are diagnosed with cancer each year and keeping up with accurate, trustworthy information can be daunting, IBM said. The Watson-based advisor will anticipate the needs of people with different types of cancers, at different stages of disease, and at various points in treatment.

"It doesn't seem like an overstatement to say that this project is the sort that Watson was originally developed to address," King said. "The individuals and families it is designed to serve are in sore need of the best and most accurate data currently available."

Because Watson continually "learns" as it us used more and more, the advice it provides will become increasingly personalized as patients use it, Rhee said. ACS and IBM also envision incorporating Watson's voice recognition and natural language processing technology, which would enable users to ask questions and receive audible responses, he said.

"There are over 14,000 pages of information on 70 major topics that they have in their database," Rhee said of the ACS. "And then there is also their National Cancer Information Center, which has an enormous amount of localized data about self-help options, support groups, local health and wellness activities and programs, local health and cancer education materials, and more. They've got global, national and local expertise about what people with cancer need and want."

Meanwhile, IBM is working to apply Watson technology to fighting cancer through partnerships with Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, MD Anderson Cancer Center, Baylor College of Medicine and the Mayo Clinic, among other institutions.