IBM's Watson to tailor Aussie cancer treatments

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IBM's Watson to tailor Aussie cancer treatments

Icon Group to localise product before pilots later this year.

Cancer care provider Icon Group is set to become Australia’s first user of an IBM Watson tool designed to spit out treatment plans tailored to a patient’s individual circumstances.

The company delivers cancer care via an integrated treatment centre, day hospitals, satellite clinics and telehealth to a patient’s primary care facility. It employs around 100 oncologists in Australia.

Co-founder and digital advisor Cathie Reid told iTnews the company first needed to localise the Watson for Oncology tool for the Australian market.

This is expected to take up for four months and involves incorporating data on Australian medicine availability into the database. Icon Group and IBM Australia will jointly contribute the localisation.

Once that is complete, Icon Group plans to begin pilots with a selection of its oncologists.

“I’m certainly anticipating that we’ll have pilot sites up and running by later on this year,” Reid said.

Watson for Oncology’s primary use is compiling the outputs of 300 medical journals, 200 textbooks and “15 million pages of text … on different treatment options”, acting as a resource that oncology specialists can call on when determining courses of action for their patients.

“Cancer treatment is a very fast moving area of medicine,” Reid said.

“There is a lot of information generated on a regular basis around advances in treatment and new ways of treating different cancers, and it’s quite a challenge for oncologists just to stay on top of the volume of information being generated.

“It’s one of the reasons why oncologists attend conferences so regularly because it’s a great way of getting a really big brain dump of what those latest updates are, but there’s still a lot of reading and research required for them to digest all the information as it comes to hand.”

Oncologists are able to call upon Watson as they research and formulate a treatment plan for patients.

“When the different parameters of the patient are entered into the Watson environment, it’s able to construct a set of treatment plans that take into consideration the latest thinking, and then present them to the oncologist for their review,” Reid said.

Oncologists can take Watson’s treatment suggestions and “overlay their knowledge around the individual patient and what is going to be best suited” to their circumstances.

Factoring personal considerations into treatment recommendations was “still difficult for a computer to accommodate” and best left to the practicing physician, Reid said.

However, the global nature of the Watson for Oncology knowledge base meant it could present a broad range of treatment options that aren’t limited to one country.

Outside of Australia, the tool has found a use in India, China, Thailand, Korea, Taiwan, Bangladesh, Slovakia, Poland, Mexico and the United States.

“The interesting thing is by having access to that global information, while it will start with recommendations around Australian medicine availability, quite often if patients have cancer and there’s not a great treatment option available to them using an Australian medicine, their very first question is usually is there anything or anyone else in the world that can help me if there’s no option available here,” Reid said.

“That generally triggers additional work for the doctor to go away and explore and determine what and where those options might be. Watson’s global literature database will greatly assist in that.”

Once Icon Group has the model and experience of using Watson under its belt, it hopes to apply it to its burgeoning business in Singapore, which services South East Asia.

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