IBM Watson, Broad Institute team up on $50M cancer drug resistance project

IBM Watson is kicking off another oncology partnership, this time with the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard University. The $50 million tie-up will have the pair examining genome data from 10,000 drug-resistant tumors and cell line studies, with the goal of understanding the drivers behind cancer drug resistance and developing new treatments.

Cancer treatments can keep cancer at bay for months or years, but most cancers eventually recur, the duo said in a statement. This is partly because the cancers gain mutations that cause them to be drug-resistant. And while much research has examined drug resistance in a few specific cancers, such as breast and lung cancer, the causes of drug resistance, for the most part, are not yet understood. Unlike earlier studies, this project will have a broad focus rather than pinpoint a specific cancer, said Kathy McGroddy, vice president of partnerships and solutions at IBM.

“Currently, cancer researchers have access to genomic information from only a few hundred drug-resistant cancer samples,” said Todd Golub, chief scientific officer and founder of the cancer program at the Broad Institute, in the statement. “In addition to the goals of this specific study, IBM and Broad are committed to advancing cancer research by sharing the data from thousands of tumor samples with the scientific community to accelerate progress everywhere against cancer.”

Under the 5-year project, the Broad Institute will generate tumor genome sequence data at a large scale, including data from patients who respond to treatments at first, but whose cancers then become drug-resistant, according to the statement. The 10,000 samples will come from a mix of new participants and patients participating in existing work at the Broad, McGroddy said. Once the cancer genomes are sequenced, IBM researchers will use Watson to analyze the data and identify genomic patterns that may predict drug sensitivity and resistance, McGroddy said.

“Cancer used to be a death sentence. Now it’s more of a chronic disease where people expect to live for a few years,” McGroddy said. With this project, IBM Watson hopes to continue this trajectory and stave off the secondary and tertiary mutations that can stump doctors. “We can make it a much more livable chronic disease.”

This isn’t IBM Watson’s first rodeo. In addition to partnerships in a number of disease indications, it boasts multiple collaborations in the oncology space alone. It teamed up with Memorial Sloan Kettering on Watson for Oncology, which analyzes patients’ medical records and provides oncologists with evidence-based treatment options, thanks to training from MSK physicians. With Quest Diagnostics, it launched Watson for Genomics, which combines cognitive computing with genomic tumor sequencing.