IBM Watson Health, Boston Children’s team up to study rare diseases

Dr. Christopher Walsh, director of the Division of Genetics and Genomics at Boston Children’s Hospital, is among the experts involved in a new partnership with IBM.
Dr. Christopher Walsh, director of the Division of Genetics and Genomics at Boston Children’s Hospital, is among the experts involved in a new partnership with IBM.

Boston Children’s Hospital and IBM will put the company’s Watson software to work studying rare diseases in children.

IBM’s “cognitive computer” has come a long way since its Jeopardy!-winning days in 2011. A version of the software is marrying data about the chemical composition of ingredients with recipes from top chefs to create a recipe database. Another Watson team is helping oncologists research cancers at places like Cleveland Clinic and the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center to study patient profiles and guide doctors’ treatment choices.

Boston Children’s and IBM have been collaborating since 2013 on Open Pediatrics, a health education project that offers doctors a reference database for intensive care treatment. That project is intended to help clinics that don’t have the staff or resources available to a large center like Boston Children’s.

The first focus of the new partnership with Watson Health will be rare kidney diseases. The Watson software will synthesize two bodies of data: a collection of research studies and electronic health records from patients with those conditions.

“Watson can help us ensure we’ve left no stone unturned in our search to diagnose and cure these rare diseases, so we can uncover all relevant insights from the patient’s clinical history, DNA data, supporting evidence and population health data,” Dr. Christopher Walsh, director of the Division of Genetics and Genomics at Children’s, said in a release.

“We won’t know how people can use it yet until we see the insights that come,” said Deborah DiSanzo, general manager and head of the Watson Health team. “What I hope is that Watson can lead to care pathways.”

In September, IBM announced the opening of a Watson Health office in Kendall Square, and intends to fill it with some 700 staff by the spring.

This news joins a slew of announcements from Boston Children’s during its Global Pediatric Innovation Summit. On Monday, the hospital unveiled a partnership with a Hollywood makeup and special effects company to build realistic surgical simulators to train medical residents. And a new partnership with San Francisco venture firm Rock Health will offer med-tech startups a chance to seek medical advisers at Children’s.

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at nidhi.subbaraman@globe.com.
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