Icon teams up with IBM to accelerate clinical trial startup

CRO giant Icon ($ICLR) is working with IBM ($IBM) in hopes of making clinical trials more efficient, tapping the company's famed Watson technology with an eye on speeding up recruitment and site selection.

Under the agreement, Icon will employ IBM's Watson Clinical Trial Matching, a cognitive-computing approach to recruitment designed to pore over patients' clinical attributes and match them with ideal studies in a given disease area. The program draws from IBM's so-called Health Cloud, a giant data set culled from more than 50 million patient records, using the anonymized information to make inferences on trial enrollment.

Icon will first roll out IBM's technology in its breast, lung, colon and rectal cancer trials, the CRO said, hoping to speed up what is often a cumbersome process in oncology R&D. Using Watson, Icon expects to be better able to inform its oncology clients about how many patients match a given profile, where they are and how best to enroll them, the company said.

Drug developers spend more than $1.3 billion a year on recruitment, according to Icon, but still fewer than 5% of cancer patients ever take part in a clinical study. Simultaneously increasing patient awareness and broadening drug developers' recruitment lens could eventually make cancer trials faster and cheaper to enroll, Icon said.

"Recruiting the required number of patients for clinical trials is a constant challenge for our customers and can represent more than 30% of total study costs," Icon Chief Operating Officer Steve Cutler said in a statement. "By applying IBM Watson to our clinical trials, we have the potential to revolutionize clinical trial feasibility, patient recruitment and study start-up timelines which will help our customers take significant time and cost from their development programs."

IBM has been broadening the biopharma applications of Watson over the past few years, lending the number-crunching system to Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ) and Sanofi ($SNY) to aid in drug discovery. In April, the company launched Watson Health and its attendant cloud-based data platform, fueled by its acquisitions of Explorys and Phytel, plus its planned $1 billion buyout of imaging outfit Merge Healthcare ($MRGE).

For its part, Icon has long invested in clinical trial technology to stand out from its CRO rivals, buying into risk-based monitoring, automated patient consent and data analytics platforms.

- read the statement