Just over two years ago, IBM’s supercomputer Watson appeared on television to trounce expert quiz show contestants on “Jeopardy!” Now, doctors are looking to Watson for answers.

The Maine Center for Cancer Medicine is one of two medical groups chosen to test Watson’s lightning-quick computing power in an effort to improve care for cancer patients. Along with New York’s Westmed Medical Group, doctors in Maine are “teaching” the supercomputer how to interpret clinical information to diagnose lung cancer patients and recommend treatment.

Since Watson appeared on “Jeopardy!,” IBM has advanced its linguistic and analytical abilities to develop new products. For this medical application, IBM partnered with clinicians and technology experts from New York City’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and health insurer WellPoint, the parent company to Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield in Maine, who showed Watson how to analyze and interpret reams of clinical data. The supercomputer was fed more than 600,000 pieces of medical evidence, two million pages of text from 42 medical journals and clinical trials in the field of cancer research, according to IBM.

The Maine Center for Cancer Medicine, a private practice with four sites in southern Maine, is building on that work, tapping into Watson remotely and providing feedback that will shape the next version of the product.

In addition to the massive database of medical literature, the application also feeds Watson data from patients’ medical records and insurance company claims. Watson sifts through all of it within moments, spitting out treatment options based on previous results and patient histories. Watson ranks the treatments, such as radiation or a specific regimen of chemotherapy, in order of the supercomputer’s confidence, laying out the basis for its answer.

The volume of oncology research has exploded in recent years, making it impossible for clinicians to keep up, said Steven D’Amato, executive director and clinical pharmacy specialist at the Maine Center for Cancer Medicine.

New clinical research and medical information doubles every five years, by some estimates.

“What Watson has the potential to do is to analyze the latest pieces of data that fit a particular patient’s profile, specific to the patient, and in real-time aid the clinician with a therapeutic recommendation that fits all the parameters the [patient] exhibits,” he said.

If clinicians disagree with Watson’s recommendations, they can input their reasons — a patient showed up to a visit with a new symptom, for example — to help Watson understand why, D’Amato said.

“This does not replace the physician, it is not going to tell the physician how to exactly treat that patient unless the physician agrees with that treatment plan,” he said.

More than 1.6 million new cancer cases will be diagnosed in the U.S. this year, according the American Cancer Society. Nearly 9,000 new cancer cases were diagnosed in Maine in 2012 and the disease is the leading cause of death in the state. Cancer kills Maine residents at a higher rate than elsewhere in the country, claiming more than 3,100 lives in 2009.

Along with keeping up with new medical evidence better than doctors ever could, Watson also promises to tailor each patient’s care based on their full medical history. Because Watson is cloud-based — meaning it can be accessed through the Internet from anywhere — patients all over the world could potentially benefit from the new application.

Launched publicly in February, the application is gearing up for a second phase of testing in Maine, D’Amato said. Watson will soon pull patient data from the center’s electronic medical records, stripped of identifying information, and suggest treatment options that the center’s clinical staff will check for accuracy, he said. The testing is initially focused on lung cancer, but will eventually expand to all forms of the disease, D’Amato said.

Watson’s work in cancer treatment also could streamline the insurance approval process, with insurers linking to the system and waiving prior authorization requirements, he said.

The supercomputer, named after iconic IBM President Thomas Watson, can query insurance claims data, showing information such as a patient’s CAT scan from two years ago or an unfilled prescription for medication, said Dr. Jeff Holmstrom, medical director for Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield in Maine. Doctors might miss that information if the patient forgets or fails to mention it, said Holmstrom, who also has a family practice in Saco.

“This is just getting all the information lined up for that single best view of the patient, which to me as a practicing family doctor is priceless,” he said.

Jackie Farwell

I'm the health editor for the Bangor Daily News, a Bangor native, a UMaine grad, and a weekend crossword warrior. I never get sick of writing about Maine people, geeking out over health care data, and...