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Microsoft enters race to find cancer cure

As Digital Journal has recently reported Microsoft has recently launched Healthcare NeXT, which is a cloud-based, artificial intelligence and research project with the aim of fostering digital tools to encourage people to lead healthier lives as well as offering analytics to support healthcare research.

Microsoft’s biological computation laboratories approach is similar to the approach taken by IBM with its Watson system, according to PharmaPhorum. This involves applying machine learning and artificial intelligence capabilities to analyze complex biological data. These Industry 4.0 solutions represent a new and potentially successful input into healthcare research.
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Part of the research that Microsoft is undertaking is into cancer. This fits with a different approach that the technology company is taking to a long-standing biological research area. This is with seeing living cells, like cancer mutations, as computers. The concept is that cancer should be regarded as a ‘glitch’ in the system and potentially it is something that can be reprogrammed.

Microsoft’s biological laboratories have two different subsystems undertaking research. The first area is with modelling the computational processes (traditionally ‘biochemistry’) that occur within a living cell. The second is with constructing a tool for researchers to use so they can create their own computerized models of biological systems.

While a ‘cure’ for cancer is perhaps a rather ambitious vision in the near-term, success has occurred with the concept of computer modelling. This is foremost with the second research area where a computer system has been developed. This is called the Bio Model Analyzer.

The Bio Model Analyzer is a platform for modeling and analyzing biological networks. The system has been designed with a lightweight graphical user interface. This interfaces enables scientists, with no previous knowledge in programming or formal methods, to carry out computations relating to their research data. The results of the analysis, whether they be proofs or counter examples, are represented visually.

The system enables biologists to draw out a biological system of interest (such as a genetic regulatory network) by dragging and dropping cells, cellular contents (like DNA, proteins, etc.), extracellular components and relationships, onto a simple canvas.

An important feature is that the Bio Model Analyzer, which is a cloud-based tool, allows biologists to model how cells interact and communicate with each other. The platform is available on GitHub as an open source offering. A key aim, in relation to cancer research, is to provide patients with more personalized and effective cancer treatments.

More details about this research tool are shown in the following video:

In trials the system has illustrated cellular signaling pathways and it has successfully determined cellular stabilization. The system has been taken up by leading pharmaceutical companies like AstraZeneca, where the company has been looking at drug interactions and resistance mechanisms to chronic myeloid leukemia.

Commenting on this aspect of cancer research, Jonathan Dry, who is a principal scientist at AstraZeneca, told Fast Company: “I’m hoping this is the beginning of changing the way we do drug discovery.”

The biologist adds: “We could … test all our ideas in a system like this, and determine the experiments that will have the best chance of success.”

In related research, IBM ‘s Watson is being utilized as part of Joe Biden’s Moonshot 2020 project, which sets out to find a cure for cancer. Research is underway in both China and in Norway.

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Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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