Asia & Pacific

  • Fighting cancer, diseases with supercomputer Watson

    Jennifer Meszaros

    14/10/15

Speed read

  • The IBM system gathers patient data and compares these against known cases

  • It then provides a report detailing options for individualised treatments

  • The system hopes to fill ‘skill gaps’ across healthcare and other industries

[PHNOM PENH] At Bumrungrad International Hospital in Bangkok, Thailand, doctors are piloting a computing system that can help improve the quality of cancer care and possibly reduce cancer treatment costs for sufferers.

Dubbed Watson for Oncology or Watson for short, the cloud-based cognitive computing platform developed by IBM, provides personalised , evidence-based treatment recommendations by analysing a patient’s data, such as genetics, lifestyle and hospital scans, and comparing these against its ever-expanding corpus of current medical knowledge.

James Miser, Bumrungrad’s chief medical information officer, says it takes Watson less than a minute to sift through large volumes of patient information, medical research and worldwide medical guidelines and provide a report detailing individualised treatment options. He likens the process to “the equivalent of getting a second opinion”.

“Watson provides doctors with confirmation of what they would do or the alternatives,” says Miser. “Sometimes it offers secondary options if the patient doesn’t want to go through primary options that may be more aggressive.”

Kooi Eng Ching, the executive for the IBM Watson Group in Asia-Pacific, Greater China and Japan, says that Watson was developed to tackle the skill gaps across healthcare and other industries.

“We’re living in a world where data is being created at an exponential rate,” he says. “There is not one single person that has the time to read everything [so] this is where Watson comes in.”

Bumrungrad, the largest private medical facility in South-East Asia, is one of the earliest adopters of Watson technology and the first medical institution outside of North America to apply it for identifying cancer-causing mutations.

Miser says Bumrungrad is currently applying Watson to treat four areas of cancer: breast, colorectal, lung and prostate. The hospital plans to include all cancers and other diseases, and is working with several clinics in Asia to raise the standard of cancer care.

David Clare, chief executive officer of the artificial intelligence firm Veloxiti Asia, says Watson will ultimately become cheaper for hospitals to implement.

“The initial cost of developing the software and database will be high,” Clare says. “This is the case with all technology but over time it will get less expensive. As more people contribute data, it will also become increasingly accurate.”

In the coming years, Miser sees benefits in applying Watson as diseases become redefined.

“In the future, breast cancer won’t be breast cancer. It will be a series of molecular cancers that occur in the breast. Same with colorectal cancer,” notes Miser. “There will be diseases of certain molecular and cancer genetics.”

Miser says that treatment will be based on the molecular genetics of the cancer rather than the histology of the cancer. “Targeted therapies, molecular therapies and chain therapies will come along and keeping track will be increasingly difficult. Watson provides us a way to be virtually and instantaneously up-to-date.”

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South-East Asia & Pacific desk.