IBM Watson Health and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard have embarked on a five year research initiative aimed at discovering the basis of cancer drug resistance.

The $50 million project will study thousands of drug resistant tumours and draw on Watson’s computational and machine learning methods to help researchers understand how cancers become resistant to therapies.

According to the Broad Institute, the anonymised data will be made available to the scientific community to catalyse research worldwide.

While a growing number of cancer treatments can hold cancers in check for months or years, most cancers eventually recur. This is in part because they acquire mutations that make them drug resistant.

In a limited number of cases, scientists have discovered the cause of drug resistance, allowing the development of new drugs to overcome resistance. In most cases, however, the causes of drug resistance are not fully understood.

To help understand how cancers become resistant to specific therapies, Broad Institute will generate tumour genome sequence data from patients who initially respond to treatment but who then become drug-resistant.

Broad Institute will use new genome-editing methods to conduct large-scale cancer drug resistance studies in the laboratory, to help identify tumours’ specific vulnerabilities. IBM scientists will use Watson to analyse this data and identify genomic patterns that may help researchers and clinicians predict drug sensitivity and resistance.

“Currently, cancer researchers have access to genomic information from only a few hundred drug-resistant cancers samples. In addition to the goals of this specific study, IBM and Broad are committed to advancing cancer research by sharing the data from thousands of tumour samples with the scientific community to accelerate progress everywhere against cancer,” said Chief Scientific Officer and Founder of the Cancer Programme at the Broad Institute, Dr Todd Golub.

“What we and many others will learn with this information will have important implications for the future of cancer precision medicine and cancer diagnostics,” continued Golub.

This new partnership is expected to help lay a new foundation for understanding the basis of drug resistance in cancer – especially the genetic mechanisms observed in patients – and accelerate research across the cancer community to turn knowledge of resistance mechanisms into therapies.

“Defeating cancer involves playing a high-stakes game of biological chess. When we make a move with a therapy, cancer often responds with a counter-move by finding a way to become resistant. The key will be learning from clinical experience, so that we know cancer’s moves in advance and can plan strategies to cut off its escape routes,” said Founding Director of the Broad Institute, Eric Lander.

“Knowing how cancers can become resistant will ultimately require learning from hundreds of thousands of patients’ experiences. We’re proud to work with IBM to make an important start toward this goal, and to make the information broadly available to the scientific community,” continued Lander.

“The Broad Institute is leading the industry in areas of cancer biology, genomics and computational biology, and we are proud to bring Watson’s data prowess to help researchers learn more about one of most important medical challenges that too often stands in the way of effective cancer treatment,” said, Senior Vice President, Cognitive Solutions and IBM Research, Dr John Kelly III.

“Watson is already being used in the clinic to aid clinicians in cancer care. Our hope is that this effort, if successful, could eventually lead to significant breakthroughs. Someday, patients who would not otherwise have options in their battle against cancer may have reason for hope,” concluded Dr Kelly.

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