IBM, Illumina join push to personalize leukemia treatment

Illumina hq
The initiative gives MLL access to IBM and Illumina technologies.

IBM and Illumina have joined an initiative to enable personalized leukemia treatment strategies. The program brings the computing and sequencing capabilities of IBM and Illumina to Munich Leukemia Laboratory (MLL), which plans to use them to equip physicians with information to guide treatment decisions.

By teaming up with IBM and Illumina, MLL has laid the groundwork for a healthcare pathway that performs whole-genome sequencing on leukemia samples, crunches the resulting data alongside inputs from other sources and outputs information of use to clinicians.

MLL is providing the bedrock of the initiative, a biobank of more than 500,000 cases built up over the 12 years it has offered leukemia diagnostic services.

The plan is to perform whole-genome and transcriptome sequencing on some of the samples using NovaSeq systems, the technology Illumina introduced this year to replace its all-conquering HiSeq instruments. MLL has reportedly become the first European adopter of NovaSeq, putting it at the head of a trend Illumina hopes will see labs across the region transition to its new, faster, higher cluster density technology over the coming years.

MLL is using Illumina's BaseSpace informatics suite to analyze, store, aggregate and transfer data generated by the NovaSeq technology. The transfer step will entail using the BaseSpace cloud-based computing hub to send data to IBM Watson, the final component in the pathway created by MLL.

Watson’s task is to analyze the NovaSeq genomic data, phenotypic information, medical literature, study results and guidelines. MLL hopes to develop a Watson-based prototype that can turn these inputs into information that supports treatment decisions, and do so well enough that the tool is adopted at MLL and potentially other labs.

MLL is full of optimism going into the project.

“We at MLL are excited to combine our data and knowledge, IBM’s cognitive computing tools, and Illumina’s new sequencing platform to create a new era of insights in leukemia biology that will also drive more personalized treatment strategies,” Torsten Haferlach, co-founder and CEO of MLL, said in a statement.

The big, outstanding question is whether data plus sequencing technology plus computing tools really will equal insights into leukemia biology. That is the promise that underpins IBM’s Watson and Illumina’s push into clinical genomics. But, as it stands, it is a promise that remains more discussed than realized.