How IBM Watson May Help Solve Cancer Drug Resistance

breast cancer
Getty Images (1); Illustration by Mia Tramz for TIME

We may soon know how cancer dodges powerful drugs and becomes resistant to them

A recent spate of potent anti-tumor drugs, from ones that target cancers like smart bombs to ones that work with the body’s immune system, have excited cancer doctors. But one fact has tempered their enthusiasm; given enough time, most cancers find a way to become resistant to the drugs, rendering them powerless and causing patients to relapse. The danger is that these doctors will have nothing more to throw at the disease.

Researchers at the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT are hoping to solve that problem by teaming up with IBM Watson Health to find answers that only reams of data can provide. The mission is to sequence the genomes of tumors from thousands of patients who have different kinds of cancer—first when they are diagnosed, then again when they stop responding to drugs that initially worked in controlling their disease. The data will allow scientists to find patterns of genetic changes in the tumors that might signal resistance and help them identify people who are at higher risk of developing resistance early on. That would allow them to prescribe different combinations of drugs that would bypass the resistance and give patients a better chance at remission.

The data will also help researchers figure out why some people fail to respond to certain drugs in the first place, and guide them to better-tailored treatments.


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