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Science

IBM's Watson to help doctors devise optimal cancer treatment

IBM's Watson supercomputer will be used to develop tailored cancer treatments.

TOKYO -- IBM Japan and the University of Tokyo will work together to devise the most effective cancer treatments for individual patients using artificial intelligence, the first such attempt in Asia.

     IBM Japan will collect the latest medical research and drug data from across the world on its state-of-the-art supercomputer Watson. The system has the cognitive ability to read language texts, allowing it to process an enormous amount of data in a very short period of time.

     For its part, the university's Institute of Medical Science will input medical data collected from Japanese cancer patients, including bloodwork and genetic data. The aim is to train the system to formulate ideal treatments based on a person's genetic composition. 

     The university will begin research this summer to develop optimal treatments using real patients' cancer cells. The effectiveness of a given treatment on a particular type of cancer and associated side effects can vary widely between patients. Watson will compare patients to its database to develop an optimal treatment regime to maximize efficacy and minimize harmful effects. 

     Because of the large number of genetic mutations involving cancer, oncologists and other care providers have long had to pore over an enormous body of literature and medical data to design treatments for their own patients. The work often takes weeks. Watson can perform the task in 10 to 20 minutes -- more than one thousand times more quickly than a human. The sooner doctors can design a treatment program, the less time a patient's cancer has to advance before healing begins.

     Asia accounted for nearly half of the 14 million new cancer patients diagnosed in 2012, according to World Health Organization data. Though deaths from the disease are declining in Europe and the U.S., they are on the rise in Asia and other regions. Stomach and liver cancers pose particular threats across the Asian continent. Because cancer incidence varies by race and region, successful results in Japan could benefit patients in other parts of Asia. 

     Around 20 North American health care and other institutions have been using the Watson system, developed by IBM's U.S. headquarters, in medical research since last year, but the University of Tokyo will be the first in Asia.

     IBM Japan sees the medical field as a prime market for the Watson platform, and plans to market the technology to research and health care facilities from 2016. 

     Supercomputers have long been able to rapidly apply set algorithms to analyze data, but Watson's ability to extract and analyze critical data from articles and other texts is new. Artificial intelligence systems are becoming better and better able to perform tasks requiring a human-like level of ability, such as combing through a mass of email to locate messages connected to information leaks.

     Japan's Mizuho Bank is already using AI technology to interact with customers through call centers, and a major insurance company is making plans to use the technology to assess claim payments. The country has long led attempts to make business more efficient with technology. New developments in artificial intelligence will likely spread its use to new and unexplored fields.

(Nikkei)

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