VA to use IBM's Watson to ramp up cancer precision medicine

IBM Watson Health and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs are teaming up to expand access to precision medicine for 10,000 American veterans with cancer, the duo announced at Vice President Joe Biden's National Cancer Moonshot Summit on Wednesday.

Under the public-private partnership, the VA will use IBM's Watson for Genomics technology to scale up its existing precision medicine program. The VA intends to sequence the genomes of about 100 people per month, eventually ramping up to about 800 per month over the next two years, Steve Harvey, vice president of IBM Watson Health, told FierceMedicalDevices.

"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 Department of Veterans Affairs Under Secretary for Health Dr. David Shulkin in the statement.

Physicians will identify candidates for genetic sequencing, while Watson will analyze patients' genetic data and pinpoint likely cancer-causing mutations. The machine will then generate a list of potential therapies, ranked by levels of evidence, with links to related research and clinical trials.

VA oncologists Michael Kelley (left) and Neil Spector review a Watson for Genomics DNA analysis report.--Courtesy of Martha Hoelzer

Watson can help expand the program by speeding up the process by which cancer patients are matched to potential treatments. Current methods include having a molecular tumor board of cancer biologists and oncologists review individual cases. This is time-consuming and difficult to scale up due to the limitations on physically hiring more people to evaluate cases, Harvey said.

The VA treats 3.5% of all cancer patients in the U.S. The hope is that Watson will increase access to personalized care, particularly for veterans with advanced cancer. The department poured $52 million into nearly 250 cancer research projects in 2015, with a focus on preventing cancers that disproportionately affect the veteran population. As for IBM, it has partnered with a number of healthcare organizations and companies to apply its tech to various diseases. In April, it teamed up with the American Cancer Society to create a virtual cancer health adviser for patients using Watson.

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