IBM Watson Health partners with MIT, Harvard on 5-year cancer initiative

Researchers will aim to discover how tumors become resistant to drugs by studying thousands of instances with Watson’s machine learning capabilities.
By Bernie Monegain
09:26 AM
IBM Watson MIT Harvard cancer

Eric Lander, founding director of the Broad Institute. 

IBM Watson Health and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard have launched a five-year $50 million research project to delve into cancer drug resistance.

Researchers will study thousands of drug-resistant tumors and draw on Watson’s computational and machine learning methods to understand how cancers become resistant to therapies.

Drug resistance is a major cause of nearly 600,000 annual cancer deaths in the United States alone.  In a limited number of cases, scientists have discovered the cause of drug resistance, allowing the development of new drugs to overcome it. In most cases, however, the causes of drug resistance are not fully understood. While a growing number of cancer treatments can hold cancers in check for months or years, most cancers eventually recur.

To help understand how cancers become resistant to specific therapies, Broad Institute will generate tumor genome sequence data from patients who initially respond to treatment but who then become drug-resistant.

Researchers will use new genome-editing methods to help identify tumors’ specific vulnerabilities. IBM scientists will use Watson to analyze this data and identify genomic patterns that may help researchers and clinicians predict drug sensitivity and resistance.

This partnership is expected to help lay a new foundation for understanding the basis of drug resistance in cancer – especially the genetic mechanisms observed in patients – and accelerate research across the cancer community to turn knowledge of resistance mechanisms into therapies.

“Defeating cancer involves playing a high-stakes game of biological chess,” said Eric Lander, founding director of the Broad Institute. “When we make a move with a therapy, cancer often responds with a counter-move by finding a way to become resistant.”

Lander added the key would be learning from clinical experience, “so that we know cancer’s moves in advance and can plan strategies to cut off its escape routes.”

IBM and Broad Institute officials said they would share the data from thousands of tumor samples with the scientific community to accelerate progress against cancer everywhere. 

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