Powering Research Forward

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Krembil researchers working with IBM Watson to accelerate drug discovery for Parkinson disease.
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Krembil Scientist Dr. Lorraine Kalia is one of a group of researchers using IBM Watson to find off-label drugs to treat Parkinson disease.

When IBM business development executive Jonathan Rezek was diagnosed with Parkinson disease, he was faced with the uncomfortable reality that there is currently no cure for the disease. As an executive at IBM, he knew he might be able to help change that.

While he was being treated at Toronto Western Hospital, he proposed something that had not been tried before: could IBM Watson—a computer system that can read and understand natural language—be used to help find new therapies?

While many people remember the Watson computer system from 2011 when it made history by winning the quiz show Jeopardy!, its first commercial application was in health care. In 2013 it was customized for use at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City to manage health care decisions for lung cancer treatment.

The question asked by Jonathan Rezak at Toronto Western Hospital has now flourished into a collaboration between IBM Watson Health, the Ontario Brain Institute and UHN’s Movement Disorders Clinic (MDC). This has led to Canada’s first ever search for Parkinson disease therapeutics using a version of Watson known as IBM Watson for Drug Discovery. This computing system is cloud-based, can draw from nearly 31 million sources of relevant literature, and has the ability to analyze high volumes of medical literature and data.

Such computing power can be transformative to researchers. The project team in Toronto has set out to use this computing power to screen a vast number of pharmaceuticals already on the market to see if an existing drug can be effective in the fight against Parkinson disease.

“The platform gives us the ability to look at connections that researchers might not have found without dedicating weeks or months of time,” said Dr. Lorraine Kalia, a movement disorders neurologist and Scientist at the Krembil Research Institute. “This includes identifying compounds that we have not previously considered investigating for the treatment of Parkinson disease.”

In the fall, the TED Institute caught up with Jonathan Rezak and members of the project to showcase this novel approach. Dr. Naomi Visanji, who is part of the research team at MDC, shared her enthusiasm, “The results we’ve been finding so far have us quite intrigued. We hope to be able to one day see these drugs tested in our patients.”

While potential drugs have already been identified, rigorous preclinical testing in the lab is required before clinical trials can begin. In Dr. Visanji’s words, “We’re at this very exciting point with the potential for huge reward but we’ve got a lot of work to do in the lab before we get there.”

To watch a short video about this project, visit https://youtu.be/l-1AC6CHSJM.