Cognitive computing in the clinic

Mayo Clinic and IBM to apply Watson to clinical trial enrollment

Kelsey Kaustinen
ROCHESTER, Minn.—While IBM’s Watson, the cognitive computer, is perhaps best known for its appearance and victory on the TV game show Jeopardy!, the system is now spreading its wings in a new arena: the clinic. IBM and Mayo Clinic have announced plans to pilot a version of Watson designed specifically for Mayo Clinic that will serve to match patients more quickly with appropriate clinical trials. A proof-of-concept phase is in the works, with a goal of putting it to clinical use by early next year, specifically in enrolling patients with breast, lung and colorectal cancers based on eligibility.
 
“In an area like cancer—where time is of the essence—the speed and accuracy that Watson offers will allow us to develop an individualized treatment plan more efficiently so we can deliver exactly the care that the patient needs,” Dr. Steven Alberts, chair of medical oncology at Mayo Clinic, said in a news release.
 
The draw for Watson in this sphere is the quantity of data involved in clinical trials today. Mayo Clinic alone has more than 8,000 human studies underway at any given time, in addition to the 170,000 being conducted worldwide. Given the sheer number of available clinical trials, and the number of patients that hospitals and clinics—particularly ones of Mayo’s size—deal with in an average week, it’s nearly impossible for humans to go through all that data manually to pair patients with studies. At the Mayo Clinic Center for Innovation Transform symposium in September, Mike Rhodin, IBM Watson Group senior vice president, noted that “We’re in the middle of a data explosion like we’ve never seen before … Data has far surpassed our ability for it to be absorbed.”
 
As such, a number of clinical trials—at Mayo and beyond—are not completed due to failing to meet the necessary enrollment numbers; in fact, at Mayo Clinic, only 5 percent of patients participate in clinical studies, a number that falls to just 3 percent nationally. According to the Center for Information and Study on Clinical Research Participation, as things currently stand, only 6 percent of clinical trials worldwide are completed on time.
 
And that’s where Watson comes in. Watson’s ability to process vast amounts of data can make it easier to find patients that fit trial qualifications. Increased enrollment will lead to studies getting completed more quickly, which in turn could help bring more therapeutics to market and, according to researchers, improve the quality of trial outcomes. Experts at Mayo will work with IBM to expand Watson’s knowledge base to include all clinical trials at Mayo Clinic and in public databases such as ClinicalTrials.gov. The system will be trained to analyze patient records and trial criteria to match patients with studies. The organizations are also discussing additional applications for Watson down the road.
 
“With shorter times from initiation to completion of trials, our research teams will have the capacity for deeper, more complete investigations,” Dr. Nicholas LaRusso, a Mayo Clinic gastroenterologist and project lead for this collaboration, commented in a statement. “Coupled with increased accuracy, we will be able to develop, refine and improve new and better techniques in medicine at a higher level.”
 
Dr. Michael Weiner, director of healthcare strategic services at IBM, is a practicing physician and tells DDNews that despite his support for people participating in clinical trials, it is impossible to keep up with all the trials available to recommend to patients. He adds that most patients say they would participate in clinical trials if they were explained well and patients knew they had the opportunity to help advance a treatment.
 
“It turns out just being in a clinical trial, period, because you have people calling you and working with you and ensuring that you’re doing well in the trial, patients in clinical trials just have better outcomes,” Weiner explains. “There’s something a little magical about being in a clinical trial, and I think some of that magic is just having someone caring for you, reaching out to you routinely from the healthcare system … What we all lose collectively as citizens, not being in a trial, is the opportunity to help move medial advancements forward.”
 
This is not Watson’s first exposure to the healthcare field, as MD Anderson, Baylor College of Medicine and Memorial Sloan-Kettering have also worked with the system.
 
“Watson has been evolving probably since we kicked off with work at Memorial Sloan-Kettering in regard to helping treat different cancers, and then there’s been a natural evolution in the healthcare space,” says Weiner. “This is just a wonderful next step within healthcare and driving better-quality care at a better price.”
 
“It’s really groundbreaking,” he adds. “It will change the way care is delivered to so many people.”

Kelsey Kaustinen

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