IBM unveils Watson for drug R&D, teams with Pfizer on oncology

IBM is launching the latest addition to the Watson family: Watson for Drug Discovery, which will use cognitive computing to help researchers zero in on new drug targets. First up is a collaboration with Pfizer, which will use the tech to boost its immuno-oncology research.

Watson for Drug Discovery is a cloud-based platform that will use deep learning, natural language processing and other cognitive reasoning tech to support researchers seeking new drug targets and new drug indications, IBM said in a statement. The platform has been fed more than 25 million abstracts, more than 1 million full-text journal articles and 4 million patents in order to streamline the drug discovery process. By contrast, a researcher will read between 200 and 300 articles in a given year, according to a 2015 PhRMA report.

Pfizer scientists will use Watson for Drug Discovery to analyze vast amounts of data–including medical literature and Pfizer’s own data–and test hypotheses to identify new drug targets and possible combination therapies for cancer, according to the statement. The platform will also help them select patients for clinical studies.

“With the incredible volume of data and literature available in this complex field, we believe that tapping into advanced technologies can help our scientific experts more rapidly identify novel combinations of immune-modulating agents,” said Mikael Dolsten, Pfizer’s worldwide R&D chief. “We are hopeful that by leveraging Watson’s cognitive capabilities in our drug discovery efforts, we will be able to bring promising new immuno-oncology therapeutics to patients more quickly.”

Immunotherapies, which include vaccines, immunomodulators and small and large molecules, induce the immune system to recognize and attack cancer cells. The path forward in immuno-oncology includes matching treatments to specific tumor characteristics, resulting in more cancer patients receiving treatment and more effective treatments.

IBM has embarked on a number of oncology collaborations, including a $50 million project with the Broad Institute to map out the genomes of thousands of drug-resistant tumors. With Memorial Sloan Kettering, IBM offers Watson for Oncology, which will be deployed in 22 hospitals across China. It analyzes patients’ medical records and provides oncologists with evidence-based treatment options, thanks to training from MSK physicians. And that’s not all: IBM also has versions of Watson for clinical trial matching and genomics. The Department of Veterans Affairs is using the latter to expand access to its cancer precision medicine program.