By Dr. Lukas Wartman
I have the dubious distinction of being a famous cancer patient. I’m an oncologist who specializes in leukemia; I got leukemia; and I’m cured, at least for now, thanks to advances in genomic medicine and the efforts of some brilliant physicians and researchers.
My health was broken. It took some of the best minds and science in the world to put me back together again.
Unfortunately, in spite of advances in gene sequencing and oncology, too few cancer victims have outcomes like mine. The genomic treatment I received, an example of precision medicine, simply isn’t scalable to millions of people right now.
This is where IBM Watson could help. Using Watson’s cognitive computing capabilities, I hope it will be possible for oncologists like me to quickly mine insights from the immense amount of genomic data that’s becoming available about individual patients by using Watson to identify potential drugs that target our patients’ specific genetic profiles.
That’s why I’m participating in a collaboration announced today involving IBM and more than a dozen leading cancer institutes–including the McDonnell Genome Institute at Washington University in St. Louis, where I treat patients and do research. The participating institutes will use Watson to quickly translate insights from gene sequencing into personalized treatment options for patients. They will also share knowledge they glean from treating patients. This is key. By enabling researchers at the institutions to mine a much larger store of data, they can more easily spot patterns and identify best practices.
My cancer journey began back in 2003 when I was in med school. I was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, a cancer of the blood that is often fatal in adults. I responded well to chemotherapy and the cancer went into remission, but it came back–twice. By the summer of 2011, after my second relapse, my outlook for survival was bleak.
That’s when my medical miracle happened. Dr. Timothy Ley, a prominent physician-scientist at Washington University School of Medicine, collaborated with colleagues at the McDonnell Genome Institute to save my life. They sequenced my entire leukemia genome and also analyzed my RNA, and found a gene that was being greatly overexpressed. They identified a drug for me that had not been used for my type of leukemia before but was predicted to block the activity of this gene that was driving my leukemia. And it worked.
Oncologists used to believe that cancers were closely associated with specific body parts or organs where they appeared. We understand now that they’re caused by gene mutations that present themselves differently in different people. Now, thanks to gene sequencing and analytics, we have the potential of doing a better job of treating the causes of the tumors. The problem is that we can’t easily comb through masses of genetic data to spot the patterns and correlations that matter. But, with Watson’s help, we might be able to cut weeks of analysis down to mere minutes.
Speed is critical because cancer treatment is a race against fast-replicating cells.
I met for the first time with members of IBM’s Watson team at a personalized medicine conference 18 months ago. Since then, I’ve been helping out as an advisor. Now, things will get really interesting. At the McDonnell Genome Institute, we will begin using the Watson Genomics solution when we deal with patients for whom all of the traditional treatment options have been ineffective. We’ll also use the technology in some of our clinical trials of new medications. Ultimately, if it proves to be successful, oncologists will be able to help a great number of patients with cancer who have run out of options and are running out of time.
Today, 12 years into my battle, my cancer is in remission and, though I face some uncomfortable side effects, my condition is stable.
Now, I’m fully committed to curing cancer in others. Every time I treat a patient for leukemia who dies, it weighs on me. You ask yourself if you’re doing everything you can for them. I’m hopeful that if we can use genomic medicine on a wider scale, I’ll know that we are.
If you want to learn more about the new era of computing, read Smart Machines: IBM’s Watson and the Era of Cognitive Computing.