The future of cancer treatment and research: What IBM Watson means for our patients

Image courtesy of MD Anderson

At MD Anderson, we’re constantly looking for innovative new ways to provide the best possible cancer treatment options for our patients as we work toward our mission of Making Cancer History®. To help with this, we’ve enlisted a cognitive computing system powered by IBM Watson.

This technology, known as Oncology Expert Advisor™ (OEA), will soon be used by our doctors and researchers as part of our Moon Shots Program, starting with our fight against leukemia. Ultimately, we hope to use the OEA in all of our clinics to help our patients regardless of their cancer type.

By pulling together and analyzing vast amounts of information from patient and research databases, the OEA is expected to help our care teams identify and fine-tune the best possible cancer treatments for our patients, while also alerting them to problems that arise during a patient’s care. The OEA is also expected to help our researchers advance new discoveries in our fight against cancer.

We recently spoke with Courtney DiNardo, M.D., assistant professor in Leukemia, who’s been testing the OEA before it debuts in our leukemia clinic. Here’s what she had to say.

What are the benefits of using the OEA to organize and collect data about our patients?

The OEA can extract patient information from various data sources and synthesize all available medical records into a clear, concise and accurate synopsis. It can analyze clinical information, medical history, as well as leukemia-related information, such as specific genetic and molecular features, and look at all available information in the context of published evidence-based guidelines and available clinical trials.

The OEA also allows us to look at changes in a patient’s condition over time, enabling us to learn a wealth of information within seconds and answer complex medical questions with speed, accuracy and confidence. This has an enormous potential to help us make the best cancer treatment decisions for our patients and the best research decisions that can help us make progress in our fight against cancer.

What does the use of the OEA mean for the future of personalized medicine?

The OEA enables us to provide better, more personalized care through accurate and evidence-based treatment recommendations based upon a specific patient’s characteristics as well as his or her leukemia-specific characteristics.

The OEA also can help doctors identify the best cancer treatment for a particular patient by identifying both the standard treatment options and clinical trials for which a patient is eligible. 

Additionally, by following a patient over time along with the physician, the OEA helps minimize potential adverse events and optimize management of the patient’s care at all times.

How – and how soon – will the OEA change cancer treatment here at MD Anderson?

The OEA is currently in the testing and evaluation stage in MD Anderson’s Department of Leukemia. The actual timeline of when this will be available to our leukemia patients and then expanded to patients with other types of cancer is not currently known.

We’re hoping that soon, various medical providers, including physicians, mid-level providers and research teams, will soon be able to use it to assimilate complex and ever-expanding genomic data and published scientific research. The OEA then integrates this information with patient data to provide insights and helps us select the best cancer treatment for each and every patient.

What does the OEA mean for cancer care beyond MD Anderson?

The OEA has the potential to “democratize” cancer care, meaning that any physician with Internet access will be able to access the latest scientific knowledge and MD Anderson’s expertise.

For physicians who aren’t leukemia experts, the OEA can function as an expert second opinion, allowing them to access the same knowledge and information we have here. This will enable doctors even in remote areas to provide the highest standard of care to patients who can’t travel to Houston for their cancer treatment.

As a doctor, what do you consider the OEA’s greatest potential?

The ability to integrate patient level data such as additional medical history, medications, alongside cancer genomics, as well as cancer therapy received and responses, side effects, etc., will provide an unparalleled research platform that can be used to generate questions, explore hypotheses and provide answers to critical research questions.

For example, the OEA will also enable us to analyze why certain patients respond to certain cancer treatments and why particular patients experience certain side effects, using a research platform that is currently not available. This gives us the potential to really learn from the vast amount of information we currently have, and use it to advance cancer research and to benefit each individual patient.

I’m excited about the possibilities for accelerating new research and providing the most effective treatments and cures for our patients.

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