Teva taps IBM Watson for drug repurposing project

Teva ($TEVA) and IBM ($IBM) have formed a three-year drug repurposing collaboration. The pact will see the partners work together to build a systematic process for drug repurposing using IBM Watson Health Cloud.

The allies plan to develop technologies that combine machine-learning algorithms, real-world data and human input to take some of the guesswork out of drug repurposing. IBM will apply Watson’s natural language processing capabilities to unstructured health data to try to find correlations between molecules and diseases.

“This collaboration will bring together the science and the technology to scale up ‘serendipity’ to an industrial level, opening up new and exciting possibilities to create novel treatments for patients based on existing medicines,” Teva CSO Michael Hayden said in a statement.

Drug developers like Novartis ($NVS) and Pfizer ($PFE) have invested in drug repurposing. On paper, the approach makes drug development cheaper and faster by building on earlier research. And there are examples of drugs succeeding outside of their original indications. Both Novartis’ Ilaris and Pfizer’s Viagra entered the clinic in one indication, only to switch tracks and go on to win approval in an unrelated condition.

Such success stories are cited as evidence of the potential of drug repurposing, but they also serve to show the role chance plays in the process. A serendipitous discovery in clinical trials rewrote the future of Viagra, while Ilaris was reborn when researchers made the link between its mechanism of action and a rare disease.

When Teva made repurposing a cornerstone of its strategy late in 2012, it talked about “scaling and industrializing” the process, not relying on serendipity. The collaboration with IBM is a manifestation of this strategy. If successful, the system will make the sorts of connections that enabled researchers at Novartis to see a future for Ilaris beyond its original indication of rheumatoid arthritis.

The likelihood of the collaboration hitting such highs is open to question. Multiple companies have tried to use technology to take some of the serendipity out of the process, but the majority of drugs still take a linear route to market. The appeal of the approach remains strong, though. Teva, for one, joins Allergan ($AGN) and Astellas on the list of drugmakers to strike tech-enabled repurposing deals over the past year or so.