Microsoft Scientists Search for Breakthroughs in HIV Vaccine Design

BOSTON, Feb. 23, 2005 — Microsoft Research has pioneered promising new ways to combat one of humankind’s most deadly viruses with advanced software typically used to analyze large computer databases and complex digital images, or to separate spam from legitimate e-mail.

Today at the 12th Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections (CROI), Microsoft Research will show how medical researchers can use machine-learning, data-mining and other software techniques to comb through millions of strains of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) to find the genetic patterns necessary to train a patient’s immune system to fight the virus. The first of these vaccine designs are currently undergoing laboratory testing.

Microsoft Corp. researchers David Heckerman and Nebojsa Jojic are the first to use algorithms similar to those in Microsoft Corp.’s database and anti-spam software to uncover hidden patterns within the genetic mutations of the virus and the immune system of the patient. The researchers, in collaboration with doctors and scientists from the University of Washington (UW) in Seattle and Australia’s Royal Perth Hospital, plan to exploit these patterns to create improved vaccine designs that pack more HIV-fighting genetic markers into vaccines. Microsoft researchers Christopher Meek and Carl Kadie and Jojic’s brother (and former Microsoft Research intern), Vladimir, also contributed to the project.

“Microsoft has helped us make a tremendous leap forward in our efforts to halt a virus that has already killed nearly 30 million people worldwide,” said Simon Mallal, professor and executive director of the Centre for Clinical Immunology and Biomedical Statistics at Royal Perth Hospital and Murdoch University. “Microsoft Research’s contributions enabled us to filter patient data 10 times faster than any previous research technique we’ve used and produced vital clues about the building blocks of a vaccine — clues that were all but impossible to find in our growing stockpile of medical data.”

“The potential for these vaccines is a powerful example of how computer science is transforming medical research and other areas of science,” said Dr. James Mullins, professor in the UW Department of Microbiology. “These Microsoft Research technologies weren’t initially conceived as medical research tools, but they may prove to be critical to the ongoing battle to slow down or halt HIV and other deadly viruses.”

Laboratory Testing Is Under Way on Prototype Vaccine Models

The Microsoft Research-aided vaccine designs are currently undergoing laboratory testing at the University of Washington. The tests are being conducted on samples of immune cells taken from HIV-infected patients to determine how effectively the models uncover the appropriate genetic patterns. Similar tests are planned at the Royal Perth Hospital in Australia. Initial results should be available later this year.

Researchers plan to use the same techniques to analyze HIV strains from different parts of the world to gain a global understanding of vaccine components in a fraction of the time it would otherwise take. The new vaccine models may also help in the development of treatments for hepatitis C and other mutating viruses.

“Science is changing rapidly with the explosion of new data, and we’ve only scratched the surface of what computers can do to help advance this kind of research,” said David Heckerman, senior researcher and manager of the Research Machine Learning and Applied Statistics Group at Microsoft. “Our goal is to accelerate scientific insight and radical breakthroughs by advancing the state of the art in machine learning and statistics. I’m inspired by the idea that new algorithms and software we have developed could potentially benefit so many people some day.”

Computing Transforms the Sciences

Technology offers unprecedented potential to transform science through advanced software and computer science techniques. In addition to their work on HIV vaccine design, Microsoft researchers are working with colleagues in other fields of science to apply their know-how and resources to the toughest problems outside traditional computer science. Other collaborative efforts include the following:

  • Bioinformatics. Microsoft Research is working with scientists to apply advanced technology in areas of biology other than HIV-vaccine development. The work includes unraveling gene-splicing mechanisms in higher-level organisms, creating an improved model of evolution, and analyzing associations between diseases and genetic variations in humans.

  • Computational systems biology. Microsoft researchers are working with leading scientists to develop languages for describing — and possibly programming — biological systems.

  • SkyServer. Microsoft Research teamed with Sloan Digital Sky Survey to create an educational Web site that offers professional and amateur astronomers free* access to pictures of more than 80 million stars and galaxies.

  • Microsoft European Science Initiative. This is a new strategic research initiative to accelerate fundamental innovation in new kinds of science and computing, through collaborations with key scientists, research groups and governments in Europe.

  • TerraServer. In alliance with the U.S. Geological Survey, Microsoft Research created one of the world’s largest online databases, providing free* public access to a vast store of maps and aerial photographs of the United States.

  • University Relations. This year, Microsoft Research awarded $500,000 in Request for Proposal (RFP) funding to several universities to stimulate innovative research and to foster the use of advanced technologies (e.g., databases, Web services and managed code) in solving scientific or engineering problems.

About Microsoft Research

Founded in 1991, Microsoft Research is dedicated to conducting both basic and applied research in computer science and software engineering. Its goals are to enhance the user experience on computing devices, reduce the cost of writing and maintaining software, and invent novel computing technologies. Researchers focus on more than 55 areas of computing and collaborate with leading academic, government and industry researchers to advance the state of the art in such areas as graphics, speech recognition, user-interface research, natural language processing, programming tools and methodologies, operating systems and networking, and the mathematical sciences. Microsoft Research employs more than 700 people in six labs located in Redmond, Wash.; San Francisco; Silicon Valley, Calif.; Cambridge, England; Beijing; and Bangalore, India. More information can be found at http://www.research.microsoft.com .

About Microsoft

Founded in 1975, Microsoft (Nasdaq “MSFT”) is the worldwide leader in software, services and solutions that help people and businesses realize their full potential.

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