Fayetteville oncology clinic hopes to continue working with IBM Watson to facilitate cancer trials

by Kim Souza (ksouza@talkbusiness.net) 674 views 

The now famous IBM Watson has helped connect cancer research at Fayetteville-based Highlands Oncology Group with research at Mayo Clinic, M.D. Anderson and other research capable clinics.

Earlier this year Highlands Oncology began using IBM Watson to screen patient records and match them to various drug trials across the country. Dr. J Thaddeus Beck, oncologist and researcher, said the local work with Watson was part of a larger project with clinics nationwide. He said the project was about 2.5 years in the making to get the parameters set and garner research approval that passed HIPAA compliance on the federal level. Highlands also has a large treatment facility in Rogers.

“Once we got the approvals we were able to extract data through a HIPAA compliant form, and then have that data analyzed, read and processed by Watson to generate lists of patients that might be eligible for drug trials. Watson would read pathology reports, lab results, x-rays and regional laboratory reports and then look for trials around the country. We had a limited number of trials in this community for this pilot, but Watson could look for trials anywhere it wanted. The goal is to expand the number cancer trials in this community,” Beck explained.

He said Watson also breaks down barriers that exists in smaller communities with respect to having enough trained personnel to read and match patients with available trails. Beck said the pilot also compared the time it took to screen for trials and the pay for someone to do that screening.

“Watson generated a comprehensive digital report that could be more easily screened by local staff. Watson cut the screening time down from four hours to 30 minutes. It could be programed to look out a week or two so that the research was better timed to patient visits. In looking at Watson’s digital report we could easily see the source document Watson used to match up the patient up with the trial or see why Watson excluded them,” Beck said.

He said the recent pilot Highlands Oncology did with Watson was nominated and won a national award for best group-sponsor-focused technology development given by Clinical and Research Excellence at its annual event in Boston.

The American Cancer Society says 1.685 million new cases of cancer were diagnosed last year in the United States. Beck said clinical trial participation forwards the advancement of cancer treatment. He said while the recent trial with Watson has been completed they continue to try to educate the cancer community of the benefits when using Watson to overcome cost barriers of setting up an office for clinical trials.

The goal was to make clinical trial participation easier and more widely available using Watson as a tool.

“That’s the way we find new ways to treat cancer. If we can double the number of people we have in clinical trials we can shrink the time it takes to develop new knowledge by half. So instead of taking five years to complete a trial it could be shortened to 2.5 years,” he said, adding that the entire question-asking process is shortened and the faster the treatment can be approved by the Federal Drug Administration.

“We just had a series of clinical trials that finished up and the drug Ribociclib was presented and approved by the FDA a month ago. Now because this drug has shown success in late stage breast cancer, it’s now being studied as a cancer preventative. We are going to move it one step forward, but before you start the second trial you have to complete the first trial,” Beck said.

Beck is on the committee that oversees Highlands Oncology’s accredited Breast Center and he participates in the weekly Breast Center Conference on nights and weekends. He also oversees Highlands’ research endeavors. Because he runs the research operations Beck also may end up being the principal researcher for a melanoma case.

He said Highlands also has a lung cancer clinic that has meet for 15 years and three other oncologists see the majority of lung cancer patients. Beck, one of those doctors, has taken the lead on the lung cancer trials. Beck said it is important for Highlands to continue to conduct research because not everyone living in the region can easily fly to Houston’s M.D. Anderson or the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota or Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancers in the Northeast to get on a trial. In most cases to be in the trial they have to live there or take up temporary residence which is expensive.

“The advantage for Highlands working with the same compounds and being in the investigator meetings with institutions like M.D. Anderson and Mayo is that everyone is working on the same development. The internet has harmonized the way treatment takes place,” Beck said.

Beck has been treating cancer for 32 years and the changes in the business continue to amaze him. He said some of the new breast cancer treatments are in pill form and more importantly treatment is no longer one size fits all. He said oncologists study the tumor, and that more than anything dictates treatment protocol.

One promising advancement in drug therapy for recurring cancers is a classification of drugs that have proteins which target tumor stem cells and delivers chemo directly to the tumor stem cells. Beck said it’s a tumor’s stem cells which present the biggest risk for recurrence.

“If a tumor is made of 5% stem cells then chemo will kill about 95% of the tumor, but those stem cells are left behind as seeds of recurrence. This drug company has developed a technology to find proteins unique to a tumor’s stem cells. They create an antibody against that protein that then delivers chemo to the stem cell. It’s given by IV and it searches the body for the tumor stem cells like a cruise missile, finding and killing them,” Beck said.

Because Highlands sees all types of cancer as a community cancer center and works closely with the larger centers across the country it will be part of a rolling drug trial for this new treatment. Beck said Highlands will help conduct Phase III with the treatment in lung cancer. He said the trial is about about helping cancer patients live longer because it diminishes the risk of recurrence. A candidate for this treatment might be someone who has had lung cancer and after chemo and surgery has had a recurrence involving tumor stem cells.

Highlands will also work with this treatment in Phase I trials for breast, ovarian and colon cancer patients in the near term.

“It’s a very exciting time in cancer research. That’s why I don’t mind spending my weekends and evenings focuses on clinical trial research,” Beck said.

Highlands had a call with IBM April 7 to talk about the next development project on which they would work together. Beck said it will take several months to map out the next project with Watson.