other words, 8,000 articles a day — can do.
At the time, IBM had a solution searching for a problem.
Watson can learn and solve problems; specific to medical research,
it can combine information from journal articles, spoken words
and images, absorb it all and find the patterns. It needed a big-data challenge — one that mattered. So the company approached
20 major cancer research centers, including UNC, where
researchers had amassed a trove of genetic sequencing data. UNC
and some of the other cancer institutes plied Watson with it.
“We now have the ability to look at DNA efficiently and
cheaply,” said Dr. Neil Hayes ’96 (MD), co-director of clinical
bioinformatics at Lineberger and a former member of the tumor
board. “We’re the first generation who can look at it and find out
how that is helpful for patients.”
Shifting Watson’s mission
By 2015, Watson was working with 14 U.S. cancer institutes to
help guide the treatment of patients, with various approaches.
IBM ultimately worked with 20 cancer institutions to gather
enough genomic data to train
Watson. For the first year of its
collaboration, UNC and IBM
couldn’t find the right questions.
“UNC’s researchers wanted
Watson to look at all of our genomes
… and tell us what drugs to use,”
Sharpless said. “IBM had a different
The company wanted cancer
research centers to give them
a couple of million data, like
which drugs worked with which
mutations and how patients with
various mutations did on particular
treatment plans. Then Watson would
know which combination of mutation and treatment was ideal.
Part of what frustrated then-Vice President Joe Biden during his
“cancer moonshot” attempt to cure cancer, Sharpless said, was
that there were data on a couple of thousand patients here and on
another couple of thousand somewhere else, and the electronic
records didn’t talk to each other.