First European Site Adopts IBM Watson Genomics for Cancer

Seth Augenstein
SEPTEMBER 13, 2019


The pathologists take a sample of tumor tissue, and sequence its entire genetic code. The advanced computer program helps the oncologists process the results, homing in on certain mutations among a group of 400 targets. The genetic hallmarks of the disease are compiled in a text file that is analyzed and transmitted securely by artificial intelligence.

Ten to 15 minutes later, the computer has pulled a review out of millions of pages from the scientific literature – producing a selection of abstracts and pending trials.

From there, the battle against the cancer at the molecular level can proceed, after a consultation of a Tumor Board at the Les Hôpitaux universitaires de Genève (HUG) in Switzerland.

The use of Watson for Genomics, the search engine developed for IBM, has now been used for a dozen cancer patients at the Swiss health system since Aug. 1, becoming the first European site to use the technology.

The oncologists and specialists envision using it for 250 patients per year. While it has been in use in the U.S. and Asia, this brings a new level of automation to the traditionally manual searches conducted by treating oncologists in Europe, according to IBM.

“Already in use in the U.S. and Asia, HUG is the first university hospital in Europe to adopt Watson for Genomics and we are excited to work together to accelerate personalized, evidence-based care for its patients,” said Mark O'Herlihy, IBM Watson Health, managing director, EMEA.

Two institutions that use the Watson technology in the U.S. are Mayo Clinic and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, according to a statement on the new deal.

Watson for Genomics is being touted for its security aspects – namely that the information transmitted includes no identifying information on the patient, and that the data are deleted at the end of the analysis, according to the experts.

IBM Watson Health says Watson for Oncology (separate from the Watson for Genomics) includes access to 29 million abstracts looking for 13 cancer types, according to some of its latest data sheets. Watson for Oncology’s capabilities include the ability to read 200 million pages in a mere three seconds, according to the company.

The IBM Watson Health team also reportedly debuted 22 new scientific studies at the American Society for Clinical Oncology annual meeting in Chicago, back in May.  

O’Herlihy, of IBM, told Inside Digital Health™ in a statement that the process of getting AI into precision cancer medicine is exacting – and is not overnight.

"Adopting AI into healthcare takes time and scientific rigor — we are working closely with hundreds of hospitals and health systems around the globe to bring our oncology and genomics offerings to physicians and patients.”

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