IBM, Illumina deploy Watson for Genomics in cancer research

IBM is putting another Watson partnership on the books; this time, it’s teaming up with Illumina to standardize and simplify genomic data interpretation in cancer research. The pair will deploy Watson for Genomics to help researchers interpret the results from Illumina’s solid tumor profiling panel.

Watson for Genomics will be integrated into Illumina’s BaseSpace and Tumor Sequencing Process, according to a statement. Specifically, the integration will allow scientists using Illumina’s TruSight Tumor 170—a solid tumor profiling panel that detects variants across 170 genes—to interpret data more quickly and comprehensively.

“In a matter of minutes, Watson Genomics will read the genetic alteration files produced by TruSight Tumor 170, comb professional guidelines, medical literature, clinical trials compendia, and other sources of knowledge,” the pair said in a statement. The system will then generate a report containing annotations for each genome alteration. Using Watson will reduce the amount of time spent on interpreting results; scientists will typically take longer than a week to do what Watson does in minutes.

But can Watson really interpret genomic data to the same standard as a human expert? IBM thinks so.

IBM and Quest Diagnostics offer Watson for Genomics to all of the latter’s customers, which include physicians and community oncologists. Watson is being “tutored” by 20 cancer institutes in genomics and oncology, said John Kelly, IBM’s cognitive solutions and research chief, in an interview on CBS’ 60 Minutes. These include the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Memorial Sloan Kettering. UNC’s Dr. Ned Sharpless looked at 1,000 patients’ data and found that in 99% of cases, Watson made the same treatment recommendations as a molecular tumor board. And in 30% of cases, said Steve Harvey, vice president of IBM Watson Health, Watson found items that the cancer experts missed.

The Watson for Genomics software for TruSight Tumor 170 will hit the market early this year. It will be available as an option bundled with the purchase of consumable reagent kits, the pair said.

While this collaboration is for research purposes only, diagnostics labs and cancer institutes may take the product through a validation process to gain CLIA certification, Harvey said. These entities may get their end-to-end process CLIA-certified and then be able to use their version of the bundle in a clinical manner, he said.