Collaboration aims to improve cancer care with precision analysis

A new service that uses cognitive computing and genomic tumor sequencing has been announced, with the aim of getting actionable treatment guidance to oncologists and their cancer patients.

The initiative will use the computing power of IBM Watson Health and will mark the first time that its capabilities will be used to provide services in the realm of genomic sequencing that reach practicing physicians.

The effort is a result of a partnership between IBM Watson and Quest Diagnostics, and it will also take advantage of research into cancer care by Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, which has a precision oncology knowledge base.

Called IBM Watson Genomics, it’s the first widely available effort that offers a delivery mechanism that can bring cognitive computing to community oncologists. And it can serve as a model that could bring cognitive computing to other medical specialties.

Quest Diagnostics, one of the largest providers of genomic sequencing and oncology diagnostics, serves half the nation’s physicians and hospitals, will extend advanced capabilities to thousands of the country’s community oncologists, who provide an estimated 70 percent of cancer care in the United States, says Jay G. Wohlgemuth, MD, chief medical officer and senior vice president of research, development and medical services.

The Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard will provide additional genome sequencing capabilities as part of the collaboration.

A researcher at Bristol-Myers Squibb's Genomic Technologies Pharmaceutical Research Institute, in Hopewell, New Jersey, prepares DNA for analysis, Tuesday, June 21, 2005. Photographer: Emile Wamsteker/Bloomberg News

The partnership will work like this: A physician treating a cancer patient will send a tissue sample to Quest, which will sequence the tumor DNA and then feeds the genetic data into Watson for analysis. Watson will use its computing power to sift through millions of research papers, drug data and clinical trials to search for treatment options that might target the specific mutations of a patient’s tumor. Quest pathologists then will review Watson’s report and send it back to the treating oncologist.

While there have been significant breakthroughs in genomic research in recent years, precision cancer treatment has been available to very few patients, typically only those treated at academic medical centers with access to genomic sequencing services. Watson Genomics from Quest Diagnostics scales access to these important breakthroughs by making genome sequencing and analysis available anywhere in the United States, Wohlgemuth says.

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At the same time, as research into cancer explodes, oncologists can’t keep up with the scope of new findings. That’s Watson’s strength, as it ingests approximately 10,000 scientific articles and 100 new clinical trials every month, then uses its computing power to associate that increasing store of information with the genetic tumor sequencing sent to it by Quest.

“Watson can be used to dramatically scale access to knowledge and scientific insight, whether a patient is being treated in an urban academic medical center or a rural community clinic,” said John Kelly III, senior vice president at IBM Research and Cognitive Solutions. “Through this collaboration with the cancer community’s leading clinical and pathology experts, thousands of more patients can potentially benefit from the world’s growing body of knowledge about this disease.”

Bolstering the corpus of data Watson uses, Memorial Sloan Kettering will provide OncoKB, a database of clinical evidence that will help Watson uncover treatment options that could target the specific genetic abnormalities that are causing the growth of the cancer. Comparison of literature that in the past may have taken medical experts weeks to prepare now can be completed in significantly less time.

“Genetic alterations are responsible for many cancers, but it remains challenging for most clinicians to deliver on the promise of precision medicine since it requires specialized expertise and a time-consuming interpretation of massive amounts of data,” said Paul Sabbatini, MD, deputy physician-in-chief for clinical research for Memorial Sloan Kettering. “Through this collaboration, oncologists will have access to MSK’s expertly curated information about the effects and treatment implications of specific cancer gene alterations.”

Quest already has built out a delivery mechanism to interact with clinicians, offering Data Diagnostics, a Quanum solution that offers hundreds of patient-specific, real-time analytics that can be accessed on demand and at the point of care. Quanum does this through connections to all of the nation’s largest electronic health records systems, Wohlgemuth says.

“With all of the information we’re finding in cancer genomics space, the sharing of that information is extremely valuable; all the testing we perform at other cancer centers are feeding in information to IBM Watson,” he adds. “And this is clearly not the only disease where this will make sense. Whole genome sequencing is underway to diagnose rare diseases, and we’re beginning to see that this is another set of information that needs to be aggregated.”

For example, the Broad Institute of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University operates an advanced genomics group, which is providing additional genome sequencing capabilities for this cancer project but also is sequencing whole genomes for other diseases. That could support broader initiatives that Quest could facilitate.

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