Illumina Is Using IBM Watson To Get DNA Tests To More Cancer Patients

Sequencing tumors can lead to better cancer treatment, but the process is complicated and few patients do it. Can machine learning help?

Illumina Is Using IBM Watson To Get DNA Tests To More Cancer Patients
[Photo: via Wikimedia Commons]

For patients with cancer, sequencing tumors can be a beneficial way to improve targeted treatments and connect people with the right drugs, but the process is complicated and many clinics haven’t gotten on board yet. Could machine learning make it easier? Illumina, the biotechnology behemoth known for its DNA sequencing machines, hopes so. The company is now working with IBM Watson to help cancer patients get access to potentially life-saving DNA tests.


“Less than 5% of cancer patients have their tumors sequenced, even though it can make a big difference in selecting the right therapies,” Illumina’s CEO, Francis deSouza, tells Fast Company. Currently, such testing is limited to the top medical and oncology centers globally, while targeted approaches—with the exception of some forms of lung cancer—are not common practice for most cancers.

It’s not just private companies that are hoping millions more patients with cancer will get their tumors sequenced. The White House raised attention to the issue in 2015, through its $215 million-funded Precision Medicine Initiative, which aims to move us away from a one-size-fits-all approach to medicine.

Why isn’t so-called “precision medicine” widespread? Illumina’s deSouza says the company spent years surveying the sector to understand the barriers to adoption. The feedback they received from hospitals was fairly consistent: It wasn’t clear to medical professionals which tests to run, the right genes to analyze, and how to interpret the genomic variants. So the company reached out to IBM Watson to develop technology to better interpret data from Illumina’s solid tumor profiling panel.

IBM Watson’s technology has been trained to interpret raw genomic data by geneticists and oncology researchers at 20 of the top cancer institutes across the country, says Watson’s vice president for genomics, Steve Harvey.

This test is designed to be actionable, explains deSouza, meaning that it looks specifically at the variants that are known to be useful in informing treatment options. Labs can also opt to customize the panel, if they want to design tests for a specific clinical purpose.

“We believe that, in the long term, genomics has the potential to impact health care on a scale that we have never seen before,” says Illumina’s deSouza. “But that only happens to the extent that we get genomics into the clinic.”

About the author

Christina Farr is a San Francisco-based journalist specializing in health and technology. Before joining Fast Company, Christina worked as a reporter for VentureBeat, Reuters and KQED.