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Supercomputer used to help with cancer diagnosis

One of the ongoing difficulties with properly treating patients afflicted with cancer like mesothelioma is determining if a patient, in fact, has mesothelioma. This lung cancer presents many symptoms that resemble other diseases of the lung. A patient may develop a cough that doesn't get better and doesn't go away. They may have fluid show up in the tissue of the lungs and experience chest pain. This may not be mesothelioma.

Nevertheless, it could be, and because of these vague symptoms, mesothelioma is often misdiagnosed. An additional factor with the misdiagnosis is that because mesothelioma is relatively rare, many doctors may never see an actual case during their entire medical career. They could lack the ability to distinguish one disease from another, because they lack the experience working with patients who have the disease.

To help deal with issues of similarity of symptoms and doctor's lack of experience with some diseases, technology offers a potential solution. In Maine, a program has been started using IBM's Watson supercomputer.

The program is being tried with cancer patients at The Maine Center for Cancer Medicine and Westmed Medical Group. IBM notes that Watson has processed "2 million pages of text from both clinical trials and medical journals in the area of cancer research as well as 600,000 pieces of medical evidence."

It is hoped that the computer, with its ability to review millions of patient records and medical histories in milliseconds and compare them against its database of medical literature and research, it will be able to develop diagnoses for lung cancer patients.

While mesothelioma is not a focus of the project, it should be interesting to see if it is able to identify mesothelioma, since Maine has had a fair number of shipyards and other industries where asbestosis exposure was common and workers could have developed mesothelioma.

Source:, "Docs Say IBM Supercomputer May Help Them Outsmart Cancer," Pat Guth, February 13, 2013

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