MD Anderson Leverages IBM Watson in Cancer-Fighting Efforts

Xconomy Texas — 

Even a powerful “mind” like Watson needs regular checkups.

Mike Rhodin, senior vice president for IBM’s Watson Group, was in Austin Wednesday meeting with staff in the group’s emerging technologies and strategies departments. The Texas capital is a key node in Watson, IBM’s big artificial intelligence project, whose endeavors include a collaboration with the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

Widely known for its triumph against the best minds of the game show Jeopardy, Watson had a bit of a difficult start as IBM staff worked to harness its so-called cognitive computing skills into money-making ventures, according to a Wall Street Journal report last fall. The article stated that the company’s partnership with MD Anderson, in particular, was “in a ditch.”

But Rhodin told me Wednesday that IBM is “quite comfortable where the business is.” He says Watson is a project aimed at engaging a “set of industries undergoing long-term transformation.”

“We knew that from the beginning,” he added.

Lynda Chin, chairwoman of the department of genomic medicine at MD Anderson, says IBM has made great strides in gaining domain expertise in health care. “That’s absolutely necessary for technology to innovate in an area like health care,” says Chin, who is also an Xconomist. “For the project to be successful, you have to be a hybrid of physician and technologist expertise.”

The Houston institution is working with Big Blue in developing MD Anderson’s Oncology Expert Advisor tool, which can leverage Watson’s computing power to research the best treatment options, such as clinical trials, for leukemia patients, and for other cancers as the project matures.

Such trials are the most costly part of drug development and are so inefficient that only 3 percent of potential patients enroll in them. Chin says she hopes that Watson’s insights can be used on treating the hospital’s patients next year.

IBM announced in January that it was investing $1 billion to form the IBM Watson Group, which will focus on research and development of cloud-delivered applications and services. The money will include $100 million for venture investments in startups that are developing apps that can work with IBM’s Watson Developers Cloud.

Among the fund’s first investments is Welltok, a Denver-based online patient-engagement platform. On Tuesday, the fund announced it would be investing in San Francisco-based Fluid, an e-commerce software company that makes a virtual shopping assistant app.

Rhodin says more investments are forthcoming. “We’re now in trials with a number of enterprises and we’re on the verge of going live throughout the quarter and the year.”