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Illumina Adds IBM Watson To DNA Test For Cancer Patients

Illumina and IBM announced that they would be bundling IBM’s Watson Genomics product with Illumina’s TruSight Tumor 170, a tool used to help match very sick cancer patients with drugs that might help them.

The move is the latest effort by DNA sequencing companies to try to get doctors outside major cancer centers like Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York or M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston to try to scan patients' DNA. The idea is that the DNA test results can be used to help patients who don’t have any options find medicines–either approved or experimental–that might help them. So far, this is considered standard practice for late-stage non-small cell lung cancer, but not for cancers in general.

Illumina says the sale of DNA sequencing machines for use in cancer represents about 10% of its annual sales, or about $240 million. That includes the sale of DNA sequencers to medical centers and to companies such as Foundation Medicine and NantHealth, which sell analysis of the genetic tools to health systems or patients.

Probably 2 million Americans could benefit from having their tumor DNA sequenced, according to Steve Harvey, vice president of Watson Health. Yet fewer than 10%, and probably more like 5%, do. The goal of the new partnership is to make it simpler for a hospital to start doing DNA sequencing. “Illumina’s ability to bundle the Watson report along with the TruSeq 170 enables a cancer institute or a diagnostic lab to get up and running much quicker,” says Harvey.

For doctors and hospitals, there are two big questions: Which genes do they sequence, and how do they analyze the resulting data? Often, the solution is a so-called “tumor board” in which a committee of doctors analyzes the genetic data patient by patient.

The IBM-Illumina offering is simpler: the DNA sequencer is used only to analyze the 170 genes in the tumor that indicate that a medicine that is either approved or available in clinical trials now might prove effective. Within minutes, Watson Genomics can take that data and put out a report that tells what genes are mutated and what drugs might help patients.

IBM points its experience using Watson at the University of North Carolina’s Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, which was highlighted on a recent episode of 60 Minutes, the news magazine show. Watson always found the mutations that the tumor board settled on, it says. But in 30% of cases Watson also found other mutated genes, which the tumor board agreed were important.

But there is another selling point for using Watson to find genetic chinks in a tumor’s armor, and it is economic, not medical. Services like Foundation Medicine or NantHealth offer far more – NantHealth promises to sequence the full tumor genome. All of these services, though, take the samples out of the hands of the person who has traditionally analyzed patient samples: the hospital pathologist.

What the new product offers a hospital pathologist is a way to buy an extra machine to run an extra test, without farming it out to a service outside the hospital. Illumina will sell the IBM analysis tool bundled with the reagents it sells with DNA sequencers. Even without knowing the cost, it’s easy to see how this would appeal to a pathologist: you’re not outsourcing an important test to somebody else. You’re doing it yourself, getting the credit, and capturing the economics.

“They have access to the samples, and they are running the other molecular tests on the samples,” says Illumina chief executive Francis DeSouza. “So for a lot of pathologists it makes sense to add this to a lot of the services they offer.”


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