VA, IBM Watson Extend ‘Cancer Moonshot’ AI Partnership

Posted July 23, 2018

In a move that highlights the expanding role of artificial intelligence (AI) in guiding healthcare treatment decisions, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and IBM Watson Health have announced the extension of a two-year public-private partnership to interpret cancer data for VA patients.

The partnership, first launched in 2016 as part of the $1.8 billion National Cancer Moonshot Initiative, has helped guide oncology treatment for more than 2,700 veterans, according to the VA, including many living in rural areas where cutting-edge healthcare technology, such as AI, is often not available. The program primarily supports patients diagnosed with advanced-stage cancer who have exhausted all other treatment options.

“Our mission with 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,” said Peter O’Rourke, acting VA secretary, in a statement. “We look forward to continuing this strategic partnership to assist VA in providing the best care for our veterans.”

As part of the program, the VA established a central hub in Durham, NC, to genetically sequence patients’ tumor tissue samples. IBM Watson’s AI-based system then analyzes the deidentified genomic information to generate a list of relevant cancer-causing mutations. Finally, Watson reviews the medical literature to recommend treatment options targeted to those specific mutations—a data-intensive task that can be overwhelming for humans.

“It is incredibly challenging to read, understand, and stay up-to-date with the breadth and depth of the medical literature, and link them to relevant mutations for personalized cancer treatments,” said Kyu Rhee, chief health officer for IBM Watson Health, in a statement. “This is where AI can play an important role in helping to scale precision oncology.”

According to the VA, which cares for 22 million veterans nationally, the healthcare system treats “the largest group of cancer patients within any one healthcare group,” or 3.5% of all people with cancer in the United States.