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IBM’s Watson takes on brain cancer

Analyzing genomes to accelerate and help clinicians personalize treatments

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New York Genome Center (NYGC) and IBM are collaborating to analyze genetic data to accelerate the race to personalized, life-saving treatment for brain cancer patients.

IBM's Watson cognitive computing system will be designed to analyze the genomic data from a small group of patients diagnosed with glioblastoma, one of the most aggressive and malignant brain cancers. Also the most common type of brain cancer in adults, glioblastoma kills more than 13,000 Americans each year.

IBM and NYGC's computational biology experts are renowned for accelerating life sciences discoveries using deep analytical approaches and next generation information technologies.

The system, expected to be deployed as a cloud-based prototype, will combine modern genomic analytics and comprehensive data bases of medical biomedical literature with Watson’s cognitive computing power to help clinicians uncover individual genetic patterns of glioblastoma. IBM will be taking advantage of NYGC’s genomic and clinical expertise to continue to develop and refine the Watson system with the shared goal of transforming care for all types of cancer, based on the genetic characteristics of that person’s cancer.

With a decade of research and development behind it, the Watson prototype is IBM’s first solution specifically targeted at interpreting data from genomic data. By analyzing gene sequence variations between normal and cancerous biopsies of brain tumors, Watson will then be used to review medical literature and clinical records to help clinicians consider a variety treatments options tailored to an individual’s specific type and personalized instance of the cancer.

NY Genome infographic

Since the human genome was first mapped more than a decade ago, we’ve made tremendous progress in understanding the genetic drivers of disease. The real challenge has been making sense of massive quantities of genetic data and translating research findings into better treatments and outcomes for patients... Applying the cognitive computing power of Watson is going to revolutionize genomics and accelerate the opportunity to target personalized care for deadly diseases like cancer.

Dr. Robert Darnell, CEO, President and Scientific Director of the New York Genome Center.

Normally, a diagnosis of glioblastoma presents a prognosis of about a year to live, depending on the stage and spread of the cancer at the time. This includes the difficult period of interpreting the best treatment based on the knowledge and information at hand. The Watson system is designed to complement rapid genome sequencing and to help dramatically reduce the time from gathering the genomic data of an individual's tumor variant to clinical interpretation, enabling clinicians to more rapidly make decisions on how they can treat their patients.

Oncologists could use the cloud-delivered system in real-time to analyze genetic data with the intelligent machine curation of comprehensive biomedical literature and drug databases. This analysis can help pinpoint potential therapeutic options that are specific to a patient’s cancer genome, to aid oncologists in their treatment and care decisions.

As these types of intelligent systems become commercially available in medicine, it is expected that many more patients will have access to treatments that are increasingly more tailored to their disease's DNA. The system can continually "learn" as it encounters new patient scenarios and as more information becomes available through new medical research, journal articles and clinical studies.

"As genomic research progresses and information becomes more available, we aim to make the process of analysis much more practical and accessible through cloud-based, cognitive systems like Watson," said Dr. John E. Kelly, Senior Vice President and Director of IBM Research. "With this knowledge, doctors will be able to attack cancer and other devastating diseases with treatments that are tailored to the patient’s and disease’s own DNA profiles. This is a major transformation that can help improve the lives of millions of patients around the world.”

Meet the researcher

  • Ajay Royyuru

    Ajay Royyuru

    Director, Computational Biology Center
    Thomas J. Watson Research Center

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The New York Genome Center and IBM Watson
Collaborate to Advance Genomic Medicine

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Thought Leaders on Cognitive Computing

About the New York Genome Center

The New York Genome Center (NYGC) is an independent, nonprofit at the forefront of transforming biomedical research and clinical care with the mission of saving lives. For more information, visit:

Member organizations and partners:

Albert Einstein College of Medicine

American Museum of Natural History

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

Columbia University

Cornell University/Weill Cornell Medical College

Hospital for Special Surgery

The Jackson Laboratory

Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center

Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai

New York-Presbyterian Hospital

The New York Stem Cell Foundation

New York University

North Shore-LIJ

The Rockefeller University

Roswell Park Cancer Institute

Stony Brook University

About IBM