Fourteen U.S. and Canadian cancer institutes will use International Business Machines Corp’s (IBM.N) Watson computer system to choose therapies based on a tumor’s genetic fingerprints, the company said on Tuesday, the latest step toward bringing personalized cancer treatments to more patients.
Oncology is the first specialty where matching therapy to DNA has improved outcomes for some patients, inspiring the “precision medicine initiative” President Barack Obama announced in January.
But it can take weeks to identify drugs targeting cancer-causing mutations. Watson can do it in minutes and has in its database the findings of scientific papers and clinical trials on particular cancers and potential therapies.
Faced with such a data deluge, “the solution is going to be Watson or something like it,” said oncologist Norman Sharpless of the University of North Carolina Lineberger Cancer Center. “Humans alone can’t do it.”
It is unclear how many patients will be helped by such a “big data” approach, however. For one thing, in many common cancers old-line chemotherapy and radiation will remain the standard of care and genomic analysis may not make a difference.
“Watson will look for actionable targets,” said Steve Harvey, vice president of IBM Watson Health, matching them to approved and experimental cancer drugs and even non-cancer drugs (if Watson decides the latter interfere with a biological pathway driving a malignancy).
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