IBM and the VA extend their Watson collaboration in guiding veterans’ cancer treatments

In Silico
Over the past two years, IBM and the VA's public-private partnership has helped guide precision oncology care for over 2,700 veterans. (Pixabay / Geralt)

IBM and the Department of Veterans Affairs have agreed to extend their precision oncology partnership for another year and continue their work in applying Watson technology to the treatment of veterans with late-stage cancer.

VA oncologists have been using IBM’s Watson for Genomics programs to help guide precision care for more than 2,700 patients since the project was launched over two years ago as part of the National Cancer Moonshot Initiative. The extension will allow VA staff to continue using the program through at least June 2019.

The department, through its TRICARE health program, treats 3.5% of the country’s cancer patients, making up the largest group of cancer patients within a single healthcare group. Meanwhile, the VA’s Million Veteran Program aims to create a massive medical and genomic database through the collection of blood samples from 1 million volunteers.

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“Our mission with VA’s precision oncology program is to bring the most advanced treatment opportunities to veterans, in hopes of giving our nation’s heroes better treatments through these breakthroughs,” said Acting VA Secretary Peter O’Rourke in a statement. “We look forward to continuing this strategic partnership to assist VA in providing the best care for our veterans.”

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

Based at a central hub in Durham, North Carolina, the public-private partnership’s oncologists and pathologists receive tumor samples from patients nationwide and sequence the tumor DNA. The Watson AI then interprets the genomic data, identifies relevant mutations and suggests potential targeted treatment options, by cross-referencing findings against medical literature on approved and investigational therapies.

According to IBM and the VA, more than one-third of the treated patients are from rural areas, with limited access to trained oncologists and personalized cancer care. The department’s precision oncology program primarily supports stage 4 cancer patients who have exhausted other treatment options.

RELATED: IBM Watson takes on whole-genome sequencing of brain tumor in early study

“VA is leading the nation to scale and spread the delivery of high quality precision oncology care, one veteran at a time,” said Kyu Rhee, chief health officer for IBM Watson Health.

“It is incredibly challenging to read, understand and stay up-to-date with the breadth and depth of medical literature and link them to relevant mutations for personalized cancer treatments," Rhee said. "This is where AI can play an important role in helping to scale precision oncology, as demonstrated in our work with VA, the largest integrated health system in the U.S.”

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