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IBM Watson Health, Broad Institute Launch Research Initiative on Cancer Drug Resistance

November 10, 2016
by Heather Landi
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IBM Watson Health and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard have launched a research initiative aimed at discovering the basis of cancer drug resistance.

The five year, $50 million project will study thousands of drug resistant tumors and draw on Watson’s computational and machine learning methods to help researchers understand how cancers become resistant to therapies. The data will be made publicly available for research.

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. The development of drug resistance is a major cause of nearly 600,000 annual cancer deaths in the United States alone. 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 tumor genome sequence data from patients who initially respond to treatment but who then become drug-resistant. Broad will use new genome-editing methods to conduct large-scale cancer drug resistance studies in the laboratory, to help identify tumors’ specific vulnerabilities. IBM scientists will use Watson to analyze this data and identify genomic patterns that may help researchers and clinicians predict drug sensitivity and resistance.

“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,” Eric Lander, founding director of the Broad Institute, said in a statement. “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.”        

“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 tumor samples with the scientific community to accelerate progress everywhere against cancer,” Todd Golub, M.D., chief scientific officer and founder of the cancer program at the Broad Institute, said in a statement. “What we and many others will learn with this information will have important implications for the future of cancer precision medicine and cancer diagnostics.”

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