A US-based regional health network, the Froedtert and Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW) cancer network, is tapping into IBM Watson’s cognitive computing power to help match cancer patients with clinical trials.

IBM is developing a version of Watson specifically for the Froedtert and MCW cancer network where Watson will analyse the patient’s data against clinical trial databases to provide clinicians with information regarding a patient’s eligibility for a specific trial.

The Froedtert and MCW cancer network is the first in Wisconsin and among the first cancer programmes in the US to use Watson for Clinical Trial Matching.

Watson for Clinical Trial Matching is programmed to sift through the data quickly, cutting the time it would otherwise take to match patients to the right clinical trials and to provide doctors with relevant information about a patient’s eligibility for a specific trial.

IBM says finding and enrolling eligible patients in clinical trials is difficult, and less than 5% of cancer patients are participating in a trial. According to clinicaltrials.gov, there are 53,000 ongoing cancer clinical trials in the US at any given time. In 2015, Froedtert and MCW conducted 220 cancer trials.

“Clinical trials are at the heart of all medical advances to find new ways to prevent, detect and treat cancer. However, no two people and no two cancers are alike,” said Oncologist and Medical Director at Froedtert and MCW Cancer Clinical Trials Office and Translational Research Unit, Prof James Thomas.

“Watson will support a higher level of personalised care for our patients by enabling us to securely connect individual health information with a vast array of clinical trials. By matching clinical trials to more patients with a high degree of precision, we believe Watson will help us fulfil our mission to advance the health of our community through scientific discovery,” continued Prof Thomas.

While clinical trials provide key medical evidence for developing new treatment options for cancer patients, IBM says enrolling participants in the trials can be challenging. For instance, a clinical trial for a new breast cancer treatment could require more than 100 patients who meet specific criteria, such as a certain genetic marker, age range, and tumour stage or treatment history.

Currently, trial matching involves painstaking reviews by clinical coordinators who sort through detailed patient records and conditions to match the requirements of a given study protocol. On average, protocols detail 46 requirements.

“Watson for Clinical Trial Matching can help Froedtert and MCW doctors bring more patients and researchers together in an effort to speed the development of new cancer therapies and extend hope to patients,” said Vice President of Oncology at IBM Watson Health, Rob Merkel.

The programme is expected to begin later in 2016.

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