VA teams up with IBM's supercomputer Watson to expand precision medicine
- IBM is partnering with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to analyze genomic data of 10,000 cancer patients through the data-crunching prowess of IBM's Watson technology, the company announced Wednesday.
- Over the next two years, the IBM will donate use of Watson to broaden access to the agency's precision oncology program. Watson will analyze genetic alteration data to identify likely cancer-causing mutations, and then synthesize information on precision treatment options for those specific mutations.
- The collaboration between the tech giant and the VA is a byproduct of Vice President Joe Biden's Cancer Moonshot efforts. IBM had been looking at ways Watson could help the ambitious project just as the VA planned to scale up its precision medicine capabilities.
"Genetic alterations are responsible for most cancers, but it remains challenging for most clinicians to deliver on the promise of precision medicine due to the sheer volume of data surrounding each decision that needs to be made,” said David Shulkin, Under Secretary for Health at the VA, in a prepared statement.
Watson should be able to greatly accelerate this process by quickly identifying cancer-causing mutations from genomic data. The technology will then create a report for oncologists which aggregates and synthesizes treatment options for cancers with that specific mutation, trawling across existing medical literature to pull relevant information.
IBM believes use of Watson will help the VA identify precision treatment options for nearly 30 times as many patients than before.
Watson is already in use across 16 cancer institutes (with more collaborations not yet publicly acknowledged). But the VA represents the largest cohort of cancer patients in the U.S., roughly 3.5% of all patients. The challenges of scale in using precision medicine across all of those patients has limited the VA's precision medicine efforts so far.
The agency had been looking for new ways to expand its capabilities when the Cancer Moonshot was announced. IBM had had a longstanding relationship with the VA before and the Vice President's Moonshot team was able to connect the two teams.
"The impetus for this was the Cancer Moonshot team seeing our technologies and saying wouldn't this be great if you came together with what the Veterans Administration is getting ready to do in trying to scale their precision oncology program," said Steve Harvey, vice president of Watson Health at IBM.
The VA will begin using Watson as part of their precision medicine program sometime in the third quarter.
Harvey hopes that use of Watson will enable oncologists across the country to have access to the same high-quality treatment information, regardless if the hospital is located in a rural area or near a metropolis.
"Whether you live in a rural area or you live next to some of the most elite medical facilities in the world, your treating oncologist should have access to the same information," Harvey said.
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