VA, IBM Watson Health Continue High-Tech Cancer Partnership

Jack Murtha

The deal extends the use of AI to fuel precision oncology treatments.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and IBM Watson Health have opted to continue a partnership that aims to use artificial intelligence (AI) to draw insights from cancer data, driving the VA’s precision oncology program for veterans, according to an announcement today.

Since the program launched two years ago under the National Cancer Moonshot Initiative, IBM Watson’s genomics technology has supported precision cancer care for more than 2,700 veterans, according to the organizations. Under the renewed deal, the program, which “primarily supports” patients with stage 4 cancer, will continue through June 2019.

“Our mission with the VA’s precision oncology program is to bring the most advanced treatment opportunities to veterans, in hopes of giving our nation’s heroes better treatments through these breakthroughs,” Acting VA Secretary Peter O’Rourke, M.S., said in a statement. “We look forward to continuing this strategic partnership to assist VA in providing the best care for our veterans.”

>> READ: How Watson Can Help Pinpoint Therapies for Cancer Patients

Precision medicine, of course, entails a detailed examination of the unique mutations of a patient’s cancer genome. A growing trend across healthcare, this type of targeted care enables providers to craft personalized treatments for a given patient.

The VA treats 3.5 percent of the country’s patients with cancer, according to the agency, meaning innovative care delivered within its walls could carry big implications for healthcare at large.

“VA is leading the nation to scale and spread the delivery of high-quality precision oncology care, one veteran at a time,” Kyu Rhee, M.D., IBM Watson Health’s chief health officer, said in a statement.

The contract extension furthers the VA’s high-tech medical aspirations, which in recent years have manifested in initiatives using AI to monitor veterans’ deteriorating health and a mixture of biosensors and AI to spark earlier interventions for patients at risk of heart failure, among others.

So far, more than a third of veterans who have received care in the VA’s precision cancer program are from rural communities where quality healthcare, never mind bleeding-edge medicine, has long been challenging to access.

But the precision oncology initiative also has a central hub in Durham, North Carolina, comprising a “small group of oncologists and pathologists” who sequence DNA from tumor samples of veterans from across the country, according to the announcement. Afterward, these experts use AI to analyze genomic data, pinpointing mutations and corresponding therapies.

“It is incredibly challenging to read, understand and stay up to date with the breadth and depth of medical literature and link them to relevant mutations for personalized cancer treatments,” Rhee said. “This is where AI can play an important role in helping to scale precision oncology, as demonstrated in our work with VA, the largest integrated health system in the U.S.”

And the VA’s size and position in the spotlight benefits IBM Watson Health, as the unit looks to make its way into more healthcare settings and further the track record and value of its AI technologies.

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