IBM’s Watson to work with VA on Vice President Biden's Cancer Moonshot

The effort will help doctors boost access to precision medicine for 10,000 VA veterans with cancer.
By Bernie Monegain
09:14 AM
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VA oncologists Michael Kelley, left, and Neil Spector review a Watson for Genomics DNA analysis report. Today at Vice President Biden’s National Cancer Moonshot Summit, IBM announced a partnership with the Veterans Administration to tackle cancer for veterans. (Photo: Martha Hoelzer)

The Department of Veterans Affairs and IBM Watson Health today launched a public-private partnership to provide veterans with cancer a better shot at recovery.

IBM announced the initiative at Vice President Joe Biden’s National Cancer Moonshot Summit today,

IBM Watson Health will help doctors expand access to precision medicine over the next two years for 10,000 American veterans.

The VA is not new to this work. The agency invested $52 million in 2015 to support nearly 250 cancer research projects. However, like the cancer institutions across the country, the agency, too, finds itself inundated with data.

“All the new information about cancer flooding in via articles and clinical trials has been impossible to keep up with in a timely way, Steve Harvey. IBM vice president of Watson Health, told Healthcare IT News.

“The volume and the speed of information that floods into the standard databases of clinicians has quickly eclipsed the human’s ability to go through and manually curate this in a timely manner,” he said. “So that’s the first challenge. Even if you could magically keep up with all the information that’s being generated and make sense of it, the second problem that a lot of these cancer Institutes face is the amount of time it takes to interpret the genetic data.”

The problem is one of scale.

“What Watson is able to do,” Harvey explained, “is aggregate the information and submit it in a report in a usable manner. It also does this for an individual patient case in a couple minutes.”

IBM’s Watson for Genomics technology will come into play in the VA’s precision oncology program by providing information to help physicians target treatment options for nearly 30 times more patients than could be previously served.

The collaboration is expected to greatly speed up the ability of VA doctors to help identify genomic treatment options for veterans.

As IBM executives explain it, scientists and pathologists will sequence DNA for cancer patients, then feed de-identified genetic alteration files into Watson. Watson will generate a report for physicians that identifies the likely cancer-causing mutations and possible treatment options.

It’s a data-intensive process that has been time-consuming and difficult to scale in the past without Watson Health’s cognitive computing capability.

[See also: IBM Watson aligns with 16 health systems and imaging firms to apply cognitive computing to battle cancer, diabetes, heart disease.]

“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,” Department of Veterans Affairs Under Secretary for Health David J. Shulkin, MD, said in a statement. “By applying Watson to this problem, we see an opportunity to scale access to precision medicine for America’s veterans.”

He noted that veterans of war experience disproportionately high rates of cancer diagnosis and mortality. As America’s largest integrated health system, VA serves 3.5 percent of the nation’s cancer patients – the largest group of cancer patients in the country.

Watson is expected to facilitate rapid access for veterans to personalized care, particularly for patients with advanced cancer.

IBM’s VA initiative follows more than two years of collaboration with more than 20 leading cancer institutes to train and validate Watson for Genomics.