It's all about that data as IBM Watson Health teams up with J&J, Cleveland Clinic and more

By Beth Snyder Bulik

IBM ($IBM) is unleashing Watson on healthcare. Fresh off a triad of big-name deals--with Apple ($APPL), Medtronic ($MDT) and Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ)--the tech giant's brand-new healthcare business unit says it will work with 14 top cancer centers to turn genetic data into personalized patient treatments.

Not that IBM hasn't used its cognitive computing platform to tackle health issues before--but now IBM has brought all those efforts under one umbrella, IBM Watson Health. The new unit aims to bring together scads of data, analyze it, and apply it to all sorts of real-world situations, from drug discovery and clinical trials to patient treatment. Data will come from a wide range of sources, including social media, individual and clinical records, and research.

IBM's Lauren O'Donnell

To launch the effort, IBM Watson Health set up three key partnerships, said Lauren O'Donnell, global general manager and VP for IBM's Life Sciences Industry, though they're not exclusive deals. One big one: IBM is expanding its relationship with Apple to apply Watson's cloud power to HealthKit and ResearchKit.

IBM will also work with Medtronic to deliver data-powered personalized treatment for diabetics, using information gleaned from devices including insulin pumps and glucose monitors. And with Johnson & Johnson, IBM will focus on pre- and postoperative care for joint replacement and spinal surgery patients. Watson's predictive analytics will be used to improve outcomes throughout the process for those patients. J&J also plans to use Watson to create new health apps for chronic conditions.

IBM Watson Health VP Steve Harvey

In the latest deal on cancer, which includes treatment hubs such as the Cleveland Clinic and Yale Cancer Center, Watson will churn through each patient's genomic data to identify the right drugs for individual tumors. That's a good thing for Big Pharma's suite of targeted cancer products. "The technology that we're applying to this challenge brings the power of cognitive computing to bear on one of the most urgent and pressing issues of our time--the fight against cancer--in a way that has never before been possible," explained Steve Harvey, vice president of IBM Watson Health, in the deal announcement.

Many other pharma companies have approached O'Donnell with enthusiasm, requests and ideas, she said. Drugmakers need the help as they try to move business and marketing strategies beyond the pill. 

Cognitive computing in pharma could be used to tweak individual therapy and drug treatments, and build more personalized relationships with consumers--not to mention improve clinical research. While some general cloud computing and software systems could do those things, IBM says it's ahead of the pack, partly because of Watson's unique ability to organize, analyze and learn across massive amounts of data.

Watson has already spent some time in the past few years "learning" healthcare, working with doctors and healthcare systems as well as developing new treatments and drugs alongside pharma companies and universities. "As (IBM CEO) Ginni (Rometty) said, this is our moonshot to advance patient-centric healthcare," O'Donnell said. 

- check out the cancer announcement
- read the IBM Watson Health release

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