MD Anderson Enlists IBM Supercomputer to Fight Cancer

Ronald DePinho, president of The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, visiting labs on the south campus in Houston Monday Sept 30, 2013.
Ronald DePinho, president of The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, visiting labs on the south campus in Houston Monday Sept 30, 2013.

Watson, the IBM supercomputer best known for its 2011 winning streak on the TV game show Jeopardy!, has a new problem to solve: cancer.

At a news conference Friday, representatives from the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, which is part of the University of Texas System, and IBM announced their collaborative APOLLO project, which culls big data to help physicians recommend treatments for cancer patients.

It’s part of MD Anderson’s ambitious Moon Shots Program, launched last year by MD Anderson President Ronald DePinho, with a goal of dramatically reducing the mortality rates in eight types of cancer.

In its first year, the APOLLO project has used the supercomputer behind Watson to power the “Oncology Expert Adviser,” a program that parses and interprets massive amounts of patient information and medical literature to aid physicians, representatives said. Leukemia is the first cancer targeted by the program.

“Watson lets you take all that information in and connect to it in a way that lets experts make a better decision,” said Manoj Saxena, general manager of IBM Watson.

He said medical information is “doubling every five years,” a breathtaking rate that the human brain simply can’t keep up with. The Oncology Expert Adviser aims to keep up with all the data, using its “cognitive system” to understand human language in medical journals and physician notes. “Watson, unlike other computers, learns and grows like humans do,” Saxena said.

Friday's news conference included a demo. With 25,000 leukemia cases programmed into the supercomputer, the computer analyzed the available data to provide recommendations for treatment in individual cases. The presenter, Dr. Courtney DiNardo of MD Anderson, stressed that although the oncology adviser is a useful tool, “the ultimate decision rests in the hands of the clinicians.

The Moon Shots program has received $139 million in philanthropic contributions in its first year. The program is expected to cost $3 billion in its first decade.

Prior to the Watson demonstration, MD Anderson President Ronald DePinho gave a progress report on the program's inaugural year. Under DePinho's leadership, there has been a push to accomplish more with fewer resources. This has caused a strain in his relationship with the faculty, which DePinho recently told the Tribune he is working to improve by operating in a more inclusive manner.

In addition to researchers at MD Anderson on Friday, DePinho praised state lawmakers' recent passage of a ban on tanning bed use by teenagers, which he said is a significant step in aiding MD Anderson's promising efforts in the fight against melanoma.

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