IBM Watson and pharmaceutical giant, Pfizer, are teaming up to accelerate drug discovery in “immuno-oncology” using the computer giant’s Watson artificial intelligence system to aid a potentially promising new area for cancer research.

Pfizer will deploy Watson for Drug Discovery’s machine learning, natural language processing and other cognitive reasoning technologies to identify new drugs, combination therapies and patient selection strategies in immuno-oncology.

Immuno-oncology is an approach to cancer treatment that uses the body’s immune system to help fight cancer.

Oncology researchers at Pfizer will use Watson to analyse massive volumes of disparate data, including licensed and publicly available data as well as Pfizer’s proprietary data. With this new tool, Pfizer researchers will analyse and test hypotheses to generate evidence-based insights.

The platform will also help them select patients for clinical studies.

Many researchers believe that the future of immuno-oncology lies in combinations tailored to unique tumour characteristics, which could transform the cancer treatment paradigm and enable more oncology patients to be treated, IBM said in a statement.

“Pfizer remains committed to staying at the forefront of immuno-oncology research,” said President of Pfizer Worldwide Research and Development, Mikael Dolsten.

“We are hopeful that by leveraging Watson’s cognitive capabilities in our drug discovery efforts, we will be able to bring promising new immuno-oncology therapeutics to patients more quickly,” continued Dolsten.

The newly-launched Watson for Drug Discovery is a cloud-based offering designed to help life sciences researchers discover new drug targets and alternative drug indications. Part of Watson’s appeal is the volume of information it can absorb.

According to IBM, the average researcher reads between 200 and 300 articles in a given year, while Watson for Drug Discovery has taken in 25 million Medline abstracts, more than a million full-text medical journal articles and four million patents, all of which is regularly updated.

Watson for Drug Discovery can help researchers look across disparate data sets to surface relationships and reveal hidden patterns through dynamic visualisations.

“We believe that the next great medical innovations will emerge as researchers and scientists find new patterns in existing bodies of knowledge. In order to do this, they need access to R&D tools that can help them efficiently navigate the opportunities and challenges presented by the explosion of data globally,” said Vice President of Life Sciences at IBM Watson Health, Lauren O’Donnell.

“IBM is honoured to collaborate with Pfizer, and put Watson for Drug Discovery to work to support efforts in bringing life-saving immunotherapies to doctors and patients worldwide,” concluded O’Donnell.

The drug discovery collaboration is the latest of IBM’s oncology collaborations. IBM has embarked on a $50 million project with the Broad Institute aimed at discovering the basis of cancer drug resistance. IBM is also working with the Froedtert and Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW) cancer network to match cancer patients with clinical trials.

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