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IBM’s Watson computer to help doctors

By Ricardo Lopez

LOS ANGELES — IBM’s Watson supercomputer may be best known for handily beating “Jeopardy!” game show champs.

Now it’s being harnessed to help doctors at Cedars-Sinai’s cancer clinic in Los Angeles stay up to date on medical breakthroughs and treatments.

Doctors at the Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute will be the first to use the technology, IBM said, and they will help the computer company make tweaks to the system — the first commercial application of the computer since its “Jeopardy!” debut early this year.

Watson, which can process information from 200 million pages of literature in three seconds, will guide doctors on diagnoses and treatments, IBM says.

The hope is that the technology will be able to comb through patient medical histories, medical journals and clinical trials to provide appropriate treatments, said Manoj Saxena, general manager of IBM’s Watson Solutions unit. IBM is looking to expand the use of the supercomputer, roughly the size of a refrigerator, to other industries, including banking and telecommunications.

“I don’t see Watson taking the place of a doctor,” said Dr. William Audeh, head of the Oschin institute, “but I do see it acting as a super library for a doctor.”

The project with Cedars is bankrolled by Indianapolis-based insurance giant WellPoint, parent company of Anthem Blue Cross.

Anthem is the state’s largest for-profit health insurer.

IBM and WellPoint chose Cedars’ cancer center because of its reputation in oncology, said Dr. Harlan Levine, WellPoint’s head of comprehensive health solutions. “Cancer care is very complex, and the field is constantly changing,” he said.

With constant developments in cancer research, Levine said, the computer’s ability to quickly access the latest research could improve patient outcomes.

With more hospitals keeping electronic records on patients, Watson is a natural next step, said Stanford University medical information technology specialist Dr. Atul Butte, a pediatric endocrinologist.

Butte said that previous attempts to incorporate artificial-intelligence technology in medicine were unsuccessful but that now may be the right time for Watson.

“I think it’s a huge step forward,” Butte said. “What’s going to be different this time is that Watson can really take advantage of data.”

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