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IBM shifts Watson from drug discovery to the clinic

Computer giant sidesteps reports that it will halt sales to discovery labs

by Rick Mullin
April 26, 2019 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 97, Issue 17


Responding to reports that it will no longer sell its Watson artificial intelligence system for use in drug discovery, IBM says it is “not discontinuing our Watson for Drug Discovery offering” and that it will continue to support current users. At the same time, IBM says, “We are focusing our resources within Watson Health to double down on the adjacent field of clinical development.”

The initial report of changes at IBM was published in the life sciences newsletter Stat and attributed to “a person familiar with the company’s internal decision-making.”

IBM has struggled to adapt its Watson computing system to drug discovery. It had to halt a marquee installation of Watson for Oncology at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in 2016. Both MD Anderson and IBM said they scrapped the project because of procurement improprieties. AI has made only small advances in drug discovery generally, and industry watchers were not surprised to hear IBM is backing away from the field.

“I’m surprised it lasted this long,” says Michael Elliott, CEO of the science informatics consulting firm Atrium Research, noting that AI is limited by the quality and accessibility of data it works with. “Data at pharma is often trapped in Excel or PowerPoint and lacks consistency in formats and quality across domains.”

Drug companies continue to develop AI for research, however. The Machine Learning for Pharmaceutical Discovery and Synthesis Consortium at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, is working on tools for molecular generation.

And IBM notes that Watson for Drug Discovery users include Baylor College of Medicine, the Barrows Neurological Institute, and Toronto Western Hospital.



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