The US Department of Veterans Affairs just got a new weapon in the war on cancer: IBM's Watson.
The supercomputer will aid doctors in their efforts to identify targeted treatment options for VA cancer patients, the agency and IBM announced Wednesday.
Here's how it will work: VA scientists and pathologists will sequence DNA for cancer patients, then feed "de-identified genetic alteration files" into Watson. The technology platform will then compare this information to existing medical literature to identify likely cancer-causing mutations and possible treatment options, a time-consuming process that has been difficult to scale in the past.
Over the next two years, the VA hopes to deliver this type of personalized care to nearly 30 times more patients than could be previously served, or up to 10,000 American veterans with cancer.
"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 Dr. David Shulkin explained in a statement. "By applying Watson to this problem, we see an opportunity to scale access to precision medicine for America's veterans."
IBM Watson Powers 'Olli' Self-Driving Van
The VA, which currently serves 3.5 percent of the nation's cancer patients, said that veterans of war experience "disproportionately high rates of cancer diagnosis and mortality."
"The power of cognitive computing is its ability to ingest, understand, and find patterns in massive volumes of disparate data — which is one of the fundamental barriers to precision medicine today," John Kelly, senior vice president of IBM research and cognitive solutions, said in a statement. "In addition to helping advance clinical care, data and insights from Watson will also be shared with the research community, creating tremendous potential benefits for patients, researchers and society."
Watson has been fighting cancer for some time. The New York Genome Center first started using the technology in 2014 in DNA-based treatments for glioblastoma — the most common type of brain cancer, which kills more than 13,000 Americans every year.