How Pfizer and IBM Are Teaming Up to Develop Next-Gen Cancer Drugs

December 1, 2016, 3:33 PM UTC
YORKTOWN HEIGHTS, NEW YORK––IBM has created a computer, called Watson, that will play against the b
YORKTOWN HEIGHTS, NEW YORK––IBM has created a computer, called Watson, that will play against the best Jeopardy contestants for three nights, Feb. 14, 15, and 16. The host of Jeopardy, Alex Trebek, rehearses for the upcoming show. (Photo by Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Carolyn Cole — LA Times via Getty Images

Tech giant IBM (IBM) and flagship U.S. pharma Pfizer (PFE) this morning announced a wide-ranging new collaboration to help identify next-generation cancer treatments.

Pfizer will be harnessing the power of IBM’s Watson supercomputer to assist in drug discovery for cancer immunotherapies, which are medicines that use the body’s own immune system to help battle tumors.

Immuno-oncology has become an increasingly popular field for biopharma companies. Firms like Merck (MRK), Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMY), Roche, and others have invested heavily in the space, including in a specific type of new cancer immunotherapy called “checkpoint inhibitors” that have been bringing in massive sales. Merck, BMS, and Roche have all had their flagship checkpoint inhibitors approved over the past two years, and Pfizer recently filed for Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of its own rival product.

These companies plan to build on these next-gen cancer medicines by discovering new molecules, developing new products, and testing out combinations of drugs to see which cancers they can treat most effectively. And that’s where Watson Health’s help will be critical. As IBM notes, the average researcher reads between 200 and 300 scientific articles per year. But the volume of cancer research data coming out on an annual basis dwarfs that, making it impossible for even scientists at a pharmaceutical titan like Pfizer to keep up with the mountains of new, potentially relevant information.

Watson, with its machine learning and artificial intelligence capabilities, will assist Pfizer researchers in identifying the most promising research, drug candidates, and therapy combinations.

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“With the incredible volume of data and literature available in this complex field, we believe that tapping into advanced technologies like IBM Watson can help our scientific experts more rapidly identify novel combinations of immune-modulating agents,” said Mikael Dolsten, president of Pfizer Worldwide Research and Development, in a statement. “We are hopeful that by leveraging Watson’s cognitive capabilities in our drug discovery efforts, we will be able to bring promising new immuno-oncology therapeutics to patients more quickly.”

IBM Watson is partnered with a bevy of major cancer institutes, including Memorial Sloan Kettering and MD Anderson, to assist in data analytics.

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