IBM Watson Health and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard have begun a research initiative to find out the causes of drug-resistant cancer.

The $50m project will be completed in five years, during which research will be conducted on thousands of drug-resistant tumours.

The study will use Watson’s computational and machine learning methods to understand how cancers become resistant to therapies.

After completion, the anonymised study will be made available to the scientific community to encourage further research worldwide.

"The key will be learning from clinical experience, so that we know cancer’s moves in advance and can plan strategies to cut off its escape routes."

Most cancers reoccur in individuals after months or years because the disease develops mutations that make them drug resistant.

The development of drug resistance is one of the major reasons of approximately 600,000 annual cancer deaths in the US itself.

Though researchers have studied and developed new drugs to treat drug-resistant cancer, the primary causes for this resistance, in most of the cases, are still unknown.

In this research, Broad Institute will generate tumour genome sequence data from patients who initially respond to treatment but then become drug-resistant.

It will use new genome-editing methods to conduct large-scale cancer drug resistance studies in laboratory and find tumours’ specific vulnerabilities.

IBM scientists will then analyse this data and identify genomic patterns that can assist clinicians to predict drug sensitivity and resistance.

Broad Institute founder director Eric Lander said: “Defeating cancer involves playing a high-stakes game of biological chess. When we make a move with a therapy, cancer often responds with a counter-move by finding a way to become resistant.

“The key will be learning from clinical experience, so that we know cancer’s moves in advance and can plan strategies to cut off its escape routes.

“Knowing how cancers can become resistant will ultimately require learning from hundreds of thousands of patients’ experiences. We’re proud to work with IBM to make an important start toward this goal, and to make the information broadly available to the scientific community.”

Cognitive Solutions and IBM Research senior vice president John Kelly III said: “The Broad Institute is leading the industry in areas of cancer biology, genomics and computational biology, and we are proud to bring Watson’s data prowess to help researchers learn more about one of most important medical challenges that too often stands in the way of effective cancer treatment.

“Watson is already being used in the clinic to aid clinicians in cancer care. Our hope is that this effort, if successful, could eventually lead to significant breakthroughs. Someday, patients who would not otherwise have options in their battle against cancer may have reason for hope.”