Business challenge

Researchers at the Fiona Wood Foundation knew there was a correlation between burns and cancer, but narrowing down the potential mechanisms behind the correlation would require more time and money than the organization had.


The foundation used Watson™ AI technology to review millions of pages of literature in less than two months, narrowing the results down to three strong possibilities. Defining these three potential mechanisms made it easier for the foundation to fund further in-depth research.


Helps to save time

by automatically analyzing millions of pages of scientific literature

Helps to reduce the resource burden

for small organizations in search of big solutions

Supports funding

by providing clear evidence in support of further scientific research

Business challenge story

A suspicion is confirmed

The human body is a fascinating and resilient machine that can endure extreme conditions and conquer extreme challenges. Scientists all over the world dedicate their lives to unraveling the mysteries of our bodies, often finding that new breakthroughs uncover even more questions, ripe for further investigation.

For more than 20 years, the scientists at the Fiona Wood Foundation have focused on helping patients recover from burns. Its founder, Professor Fiona Wood, developed an innovative new approach to burn treatment called ReCell. Approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2018, ReCell is a spray-on treatment that accelerates the burn healing process, and it may revolutionize burn treatment around the world.

Even as ReCell was gaining recognition, Fiona Wood had a chance encounter with a recovering burn patient who was also suffering from a particularly aggressive form of cancer. This patient’s experience sparked a new line of inquiry: Could there be a correlation between burns and the risk of a cancer diagnosis? Or do burn patients respond to cancer differently?

A review of population data for burn patients in Western Australia and Scotland  confirmed  Professor Wood’s hunch. Among patients who had been treated for burns to more than 2 percent of their bodies there was a higher risk of cancer than in a comparable non-burned population. Even if decades had passed between the burn treatment and the cancer diagnosis, the correlation stood.

There is a lot of space between knowing a correlation exists and being able to do something about it. There are thousands of potential reasons for burn patients to experience cancer differently from non-burn patients. Exploring every one of them is simply not possible within a reasonable timeframe. The Fiona Wood Foundation needed to narrow down potential mechanisms behind the correlation before it could start looking for ways to improve outcomes. 

If you can show that you’re reasonably confident that there’s value in what you’re proposing, it’s easier to get funds committed to your project.

Dr. Mark Fear, Senior Scientist, Fiona Wood Foundation

Transformation story

Narrowing it down

The Watson AI technology platform proved to be exactly the tool the Fiona Wood Foundation needed to help narrow down its research. The foundation used the Watson AI technology to scan millions of pages of scientific literature, searching for previously undiscovered connections between burns, cancer and the human genome and to develop evidence-based predictive models and dynamic visualizations.

Within a few weeks, the tool helped the Fiona Wood Foundation identify potential pathways for further investigation: with the focus primarily on models of metastasis based on their findings using the Watson platform.

Identifying these potential pathways, says Dr. Mark Fear, Senior Scientist at the Fiona Wood Foundation, was critical. “If you try to explore everything, that takes longer and is more difficult than if you have an idea of what you’re looking for in the first place,” he explains. “A lot of the funding Fiona Wood Foundation uses is philanthropic. If you can show that you’re reasonably confident that there’s value in what you’re proposing, it’s easier to get funds committed to your project.”

Results story

Plans for the future

Thanks to Watson AI technology, it took less than two months to narrow the focus to potential pathways. After that, the Fiona Wood Foundation launched the next phase of the project, in vivo testing, which has narrowed the research even further.

The study showed that burns can lead to a higher level of metastasis. Dr Fear explains: “The data suggests that the burn injury can change some patients’ immune responses permanently. If those patients subsequently get a cancer, it is possible they are more susceptible to metastasis because of the changes that occurred physiologically at the time of the burn.”

The foundation’s next step is to understand exactly what physiological changes lead to increased susceptibility to metastasis, and then develop ways to circumvent the process. “You could intervene in the acute period of the burn to prevent those changes,” says Dr. Fear. “Or it may require something as simple as increased monitoring. If you know there is an increased risk, then you can monitor these patients better.”

Regardless of what approach turns out to be the most effective, the team at the Fiona Wood Foundation is determined to uncover it and continue to work toward improving outcomes for burn patients everywhere. “We suspect that a lot of other diseases are secondary to burn injury over time,” says Dr. Fear. “Ultimately, we would like to be able to ameliorate the impact of the burn — weaken it, change its potentiality, and restore the immune system. That’s the target we’d like to aim for.”

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About Fiona Wood Foundation

The Fiona Wood Foundation, previously the McComb Foundation, was started in 1999 by Professor Fiona Wood and scientist Marie Stoner. Located in Perth, Australia, the foundation is dedicated to improving outcomes for burn patients, educating people about burn prevention, and furthering burn research throughout the world. It supports the Burns Service of Western Australia and operates a research hub called the Centre of Excellence in Burns Research, also in Perth. Professor Wood continues to lead the research team.

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About IBM Watson Health

Watson Health™ is a business unit of IBM that is dedicated to the development and implementation of cognitive and data-driven technologies to advance health. Watson Health technologies are tackling a wide range of the world's biggest health care challenges, including cancer, diabetes, drug development and more.