Medical Device Daily Staff Writer

On Fox network's medical drama "House", the main character of the show, Dr. Gregory House, portrayed by actor Hugh Laurie, is able to look at a patient's symptoms and through the process of trial and error, he's able to effectively treat them. What's striking about the show, is the character's ability to process a vast amount of medical knowledge without even cracking open a book, or consulting the latest breakthroughs in medical research to discern a patient's illness. The information is all there in his head.

In most cases, real world physicians don't have the same luxury as their fantasy counterpart. But two former competitors have teamed up to create a "super computer" solution that will be able to help physicians and clinicians analyze symptoms and perhaps come up with treatments in a mere matter of minutes.

IBM (Armonk, New York) and Nuance Communications (Burlington, Massachusetts), a provider of speech and imaging solutions for businesses and consumers, will work together to adapt the Watson computer, which was featured on the popular gameshow "Jeopardy" last week, to help serve the healthcare industry.

"What we see here is an opportunity to take what was showcased in [Jeopardy] and place that in a real world setting," Richard Mack, VP, corporate communications for Nuance, told Medical Device Daily.

Under the agreement, IBM and Nuance will jointly invest in a multi-year research initiative targeted to the applications of the Watson technology to assist in the diagnosis and treatment of patients in combination with Nuance's voice and clinical language solutions. In addition, IBM has licensed access to the Watson technology to Nuance. IBM and Nuance are currently engaged in a five-year joint-research initiative designed to advance next-generation natural language speech technologies, the results of which will be commercialized by Nuance.

The companies said that Watson's ability to analyze the meaning and context of human language, and quickly process information to find precise answers can assist decision makers, such as physicians and nurses, unlock important knowledge and facts buried within huge volumes of information, and offer answers they may not have considered to help validate their own ideas or hypotheses.

"The results will be instantaneous," Mack said, when asked how long it will take the solution to give feedback to physicians. "Our solution is quite powerful and will be processing billions of lines of data."

For example, a doctor considering a patient's diagnosis could use Watson's analytic technology, in conjunction with Nuance's voice and clinical language understanding solutions, to rapidly consider all the related texts, reference materials, prior cases, and latest knowledge in journals and medical literature to gain evidence from many more potential sources than previously possible. This could help medical professionals confidently determine the most likely diagnosis and treatment options.

The two companies expect the first commercial offerings from the collaboration to be available in 18 to 24 months.

It's still early in development, and Mack would not get into specifics of how this will be offered to physicians and hospitals.

"You should expect that this will be developed for as many entry points into a doctor's office as possible," Mack told MDD.

Additionally, Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC, New York) and the University of Maryland School of Medicine (Baltimore) are contributing their medical expertise and research to the collaborative effort. For example, physicians at Columbia University are helping identify critical issues in the practice of medicine where the Watson technology may be able to contribute, and physicians at the University of Maryland are working to identify the best way that a technology like Watson could interact with medical practitioners to provide the maximum assistance.

"Watson has the potential to help doctors reduce the time needed to evaluate and determine the correct diagnosis for a patient," Herbert Chase MD, professor of CUMC of physicians and surgeons, said in a statement. "We also believe that Watson also has the ability to help doctors provide personalized treatment options that are tailored to an individual patient's needs."

A decade ago such a solution geared toward the healthcare sector was unfathomable for Nuance, which designs speech recognition, clinical language understanding, decision support and test results management solutions. In fact, the healthcare portion of the company was pretty small and not a huge segment for the firm. But that changed throughout time as the company started to see the value that its solutions could have on the industry.

"The largest part of our business [now] is our healthcare [unit], Mack said. "It has grown exponentially part of that is through acquisitions and then organic growth.

Even with the growth, Mack said that this project went beyond the company's wildest expectations.

"I can't say we envisioned anything quite like this," Mack said. "It is true artificial intelligence that is meant to support the physician."

Omar Ford, 404-262-5546;

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