IBM is donating the use of its powerful Watson computers to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to assist in analyzing 10,000 genomes of cancer patients.
The generous gift will be announced before a summit held by Vice President Joseph Biden, discussing the ‘Cancer Moonshot’ initiative he’s spearheading. Without the Moonshot project, IBM likely wouldn’t have donated the Watson; the idea of employing the Watson came about when IBM was looking for a way to get into the project.
The VA was looking for a way to expand its use of DNA analysis in cancer treatment. The department treats roughly 3.5% of America’s cancer patients.
“Our precision oncology efforts have pretty much been focused on the areas where we have that kind of expertise in the VA system,” says David Shulkin, The Department of Veterans Affairs Under Secretary for Health. “This IBM Watson relationship allows us to dramatically move that faster by providing that to patients.”
If a patient has become resistant to standard drugs in their cancer treatment, analyzing the DNA sequence of the person may help identify a new treatment. The VA is hoping the Watson can help provide this technology across the country.
“It really shouldn’t matter whether you happen to live in Boston, were all these great medical centers are, or in New York or Houston,” says IBM’s Steve Harvey, Vice President of Watson Health at IBM. “If you live where I grew up in the Midwest you should have access to all the same information that all these leading oncologists are using.”
The joint effort between IBM and the government is an excellent example of what initiatives like Moonshot can create. Giving companies incentives to make their technology more broadly available and making connections has great benefits.
But there are limits, namely that this is a short-term project. The agreement doesn’t prove that sequencing DNA of tumors really saves lives, nor does it help any cancer patients outside the VA. And we don’t know how good the Watson is at this particular, non-Jeopardy task too.
At minimum, the wheels have progress and innovation have been greased, at least a little bit.