IBM Watson to be used to help 10,000 veterans

A woman walks past the IBM logo
Sean Gallup | Getty Images
A woman walks past the IBM logo

IBM Watson Health has unveiled a new partnership with the Department of Veterans Affairs to dramatically improve access to cutting-edge cancer care for U.S. veterans. The goal is to help doctors deliver so-called precision medicine to 10,000 American veterans diagnosed with the disease over the next two years.

Veterans suffer disproportionately high cancer diagnosis and mortality rates. As such, the VA delivers treatment to 3.5 percent of U.S. cancer patients — the largest group of cancer patients in the nation.

"I think that is huge," said Steve Harvey, Watson Health vice president. "It is using technology to help those that really need it the most."

IBM's cloud-based Watson for Genomics technology combines data from research papers, clinical trials and other sources with patient data to recommend individualized treatment plans.

"The technology is useful for identifying the particular drug that is useful for a specific patient, based on the changes in genes that we find in that patient's' tumor sample," said Dr. Michael Kelley, VA national program director for oncology. "It is individualized, personalized treatment decisions that are informed using the Watson technology."

The application of artificial intelligence to vast oncology data sets delivers drug recommendations and treatment options in minutes, often eliminating the need for lengthy board discussions requiring panels of experts to convene on individual cases. Using this technology, the VA's physicians are expected to be able to treat almost 30 times more patients than could previously be served.

Precision medicine, also known as targeted therapy, has been around for over a decade but the treatment decisions have become so complex that no individual, or group of individuals, is able to synthesize all the data needed to make the best decisions for patients, said Kelley. With Watson's help, doctors are able to greatly improve how well patients respond to treatment and how long they live.

"We need these tools to help us," he said.

Here is how VA doctors will use this new technology: 1) DNA sequencing is done to create a file which includes the areas that are mutated 2) Doctors upload the file to Watson's data crunching software in the cloud 3) Watson delivers the results to an interactive dashboard a few minutes later.

Physicians then examine the information Watson delivers, including the changes in the gene and what they mean, how strong the evidence is for using different types of drugs, links to relevant studies, reports and clinical trials, if applicable.

IBM is providing Watson Genomics to the VA as a gift and will not own the anonymized data that it is analyzing. The organizations will make their findings available to the academic community to help advance genomic research. IBM has already announced partnerships with the New York Genome Center and 16 institutes using Watson for Genomics and is working with others.

"We are aggressively continuing to actively work through our collaboration partnership study and hopefully you are going to hear a lot more later this year," said Harvey.